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A band, a brand, a spectacle, a Sphere

Having mounted outsized tours for decades, U2 is particularly suited to the technological wizardry of the Sphere in Las Vegas. But is the Sphere suited for more?
John Katsilometes
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Having mounted outsized tours for decades, U2 is particularly suited to the technological wizardry of the Sphere in Las Vegas. But is the Sphere suited for more?

When I walked into Wembley Stadium in August 1993 to see U2 on the ZooTV tour, I thought I knew what I was in for. None of the MTV footage or endless magazine features had prepared me for the reality: The stage was a giant mass of metal scaffolding, supporting at least a dozen giant screens, neon signs, rows and rows of lighting, repurposed East German compact cars, TV antennas and enormous speaker stacks that were nonetheless dwarfed by everything around them. The band had already taken us through "Zoo Station" and "The Fly" and then ramped up the emotional VU meter when the Edge's Rickenbacker sounded the clarion call for "Even Better Than the Real Thing." The world's most famous lounge lizard, Bono, with slicked-back overdyed ebony hair, wearing a black patent leather suit and a pair of black bug-eyed glasses, spread his arms wide open and beseeched the tens of thousands of people in front of him: "Let me be your lover tonight." ZooTV captured the imagination of popular media, not just because the tour relied on visuals and themes and in-jokes, but also because it was a rock-and-roll extravaganza that utilized everything U2 had ever learned or believed.

Now, 30 years later, Achtung Baby is once again the centerpiece of a U2 performance, this time not on tour, but for 36 concerts extending into 2024 at the latest rich man's folly, known as the Sphere at the Venetian in Las Vegas. They didn't have to build a television station, but instead reportedly received $10 million from the Sphere's owner, James Dolan, the proprietor of Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks basketball team, to stage this production, in addition to their $4 million per night fee. The Sphere is a 17,500-person capacity venue housed within a giant orb (366 feet tall and 516 feet wide) located in what's essentially a back corner of Sin City. You can see it all over social media or if you arrive by plane in what seems to be its most frequent incarnation as a giant orange emoji face, smiling and frowning and rolling its enormous eyes. It is, as the advance press made sure to remind us, a venue built for art and not for basketball or the circus or the dog show.

But the Sphere needs U2 more than U2 needs the Sphere. U2 could sell out arenas and even stadiums across the globe on the promise of hearing Achtung Baby in full, but it would have been business as usual and this band likes a challenge — not for the spotlight (although they definitely don't mind it), but because the members embrace the process and genuinely delight in seeing what the momentum brings to the art project that is U2 the rock and roll band. While the band basically moved its entire creative team to Las Vegas for six months in order to create this show for this building (and only this building), that's not the only reason U2 is uniquely suited to this particular technological wizardry. It's because U2 has the ability to harness its relentless earnestness and transform it into a superpower. There's a telling line in 2009's "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" where Bono sings, "The right to be ridiculous is something I hold dear" — that is a tenet that the entire band has always embraced to varying degrees. U2 can afford to get it wrong and doesn't care if it does. They do, however, care what their fans think, to the point where Larry Mullen Jr. once apologized for a ticketing error during his Grammys acceptance speech, and Bono felt so bad about not being able to come out and talk to fans every night before the shows in Vegas (because of the havoc the desert air plays with his voice) that he issued a lengthy apology via U2.com's message boards.

What happens at the Sphere, stays at the Sphere

U2 is, first and foremost, a rock and roll band, but it is also a brand, a corporation and an unabashedly capitalist concern. So when it turned out that Larry Mullen Jr., the band's drummer and founding member, was in need of surgery to remedy the toll that 40 years behind a drum kit takes on the body, there was an emphatic PR campaign about why Larry won't be at the Sphere shows and how he's OK with it and here's a new drummer, Bram van den Berg, who has enough chops to learn this material and perform it at a very high level, but is comfortable with being a hired hand. Meanwhile, before the building was even finished, there were interviews with Bono and Edge extolling its praises. Launching a residency was a sharp knife edge, but they walked it with aplomb, and the result was 25 sold-out shows.

The first thing you see when you enter the seating bowl area of the Sphere for U2:UV is the graphics on the much-vaunted video screens, which create the illusion of being inside some kind of steampunk silo that's open to the night sky. (If you watch closely, you'll see a dove occasionally fly across the "opening.") The seating pitch is incredibly steep — there were some issues opening weekend with security telling fans they weren't allowed to stand because the venue was concerned about people losing their balance. Then you will likely notice what's conspicuously absent: There are no speaker stacks, no carefully positioned hanging PA columns, no lighting rig. As Bono and Edge gleefully told Zane Lowe and everyone else: "The entire building is a speaker." What that means from a practical standpoint is not just immersive clarity, but also an incredible balance. At the Sphere, Bono can speak in a normal, conversational tone into the microphone and everyone can hear it. In my own unscientific assessment, the building also seems to amplify the audience's response — singalongs sound louder than they do in a normal arena.

Es Devlin's <em>Nevada Ark</em>, a digital rendering of stone carvings of 26 local species that are threatened for extinction, graces "With or Without You" at the end of the show.
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for Live Nation
Getty Images for Live Nation
Es Devlin's Nevada Ark, a digital rendering of stone carvings of 26 local species that are threatened for extinction, graces "With or Without You" at the end of the show.

The visuals that accompany the songs are a combination of bespoke video graphics and live footage of the band onstage. And, unlike going to your local blimp nest or Enormodome, the extremely high resolution makes the experience a bonus and not a consolation prize. You can see the wrinkles in Bono's forehead, the sweat on Edge's Rickenbacker and the details of Adam Clayton's sneakers. The cameras that capture the band are slender and remote-operated — there's no giant crane blocking your view during the guitar solo. But it's still U2, so Bono still plays to the lens and Edge dances with it, smiling broadly at five stories tall. The videos that mesh live footage with snazzy graphics are also fantastic, but alone probably wouldn't be enough to justify the production costs or ticket prices, which is probably why the Sphere has not yet secured its next musical residency.

The band opens the show with "Zoo Station" and, with it, activates the full powers of the Sphere. The concrete bunker facade splits open into four quadrants, the illusion of light breaking into the darkest space. The band clearly worked hard to make sure that the tech enhances the music: "The Fly" turns the sphere into a giant ZooTV screen, reviving U2's art piece about propaganda, as hundreds of words flash, à la Jenny Holzer, "WATCH MORE TV" or "EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG." It isn't a new element, but back in 1993, it was so far ahead of its time that it is now simply current.

Bono continues to evolve as a frontman, with what sounds like an effortless control of his vocals. There are a few places in the show where he modulates to a slightly lower key than the originals — during the bridge of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," for instance — but he is comfortable in his voice, even as he girds it against the dry desert air. A Frank Sinatra comparison might seem like a reach given where we are standing, but it is not blasphemy to suggest it. (As the band told Zane Lowe, Sinatra appreciated Bono, telling him, "You are the only man with an earring I am going to like.") It feels like the Edge is taking up more room, a hard thing to do when your lead singer is one of the world's biggest personalities, and Adam Clayton continues to affably hold down the low end with his usual solid power. As for Bram van den Berg, he works hard to not reinvent the wheel, which is not an easy task.

A return to the record that rescued and reinvented U2

Achtung Baby is particularly suited for this ginormous presentation because it's full of songs with massive enveloping intros that announce their arrival. "Even Better Than the Real Thing" brings Elvis back to Vegas, featuring Marco Brambilla's King Size, a massive video collage of Presley from all of his eras that begins at the top of the venue and cascades down, its inherent motion a perfect foil for this kinetic sculpture of a song. "Until the End of the World" was a heart-stopping moment, but I cannot tell you what the graphics were because it is my favorite U2 song and I was hearing it in a depth and volume that you cannot get from the most expensive headphones or the best seat in an arena. This was the album that both rescued and reinvented U2, and because the band was willing to throw out absolutely everything that it had previously done, 30 years later the songs still retain the inherent emotion and power. It is why the fans — and the band — still care so much about this record.

The lighter fare in the set comes from a midpoint four-pack of songs from Rattle and Hum. The crowd joined in with affectionate volume on "All I Want Is You." "Love Rescue Me" was introduced with a story about how they wrote the song with Bob Dylan and finished with a rousing verse of "Like A Rolling Stone," where Bono wisely let the crowd carry the lead. In the encore, the big hits like "Elevation" or "Vertigo" were a respite by comparison before "Where the Streets Have No Name" carried the crowd into the desert sunrise. Bono once said the song was "where craft ends and spirit begins." It is still that, but it has some tough, tough competition in this particular set of songs and the way they are performed.

The Sphere is a 17,500-person capacity venue housed within a giant orb (366 feet tall and 516 feet wide) located in what's essentially a back corner of Sin City.
Ronda Churchill / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The Sphere is a 17,500-person capacity venue housed within a giant orb (366 feet tall and 516 feet wide) located in what's essentially a back corner of Sin City.

Es Devlin's Nevada Ark, a digital rendering of stone carvings of 26 local species that are threatened for extinction, graces "With or Without You" at the end of the show. It got a lot of pre-show hype, but just looking at the image is not the same as being inside of it, watching the animals animate slowly above your head while the band creates a sonic structure alongside it. Perhaps the only flaw was the irony of this statement being made in a giant electrical globe that will definitely not be friendly to flying creatures (a bat literally landed splat on the pavement outside as the general admission line was filing in) and contains thousands of people whose transportation to this locale was definitely not carbon neutral.

One of the band's justifications for doing this residency without Larry Mullen Jr. was the assertion that "we need to get back on stage and see the faces of our fans again" even while wanting to minimize travel due to COVID. But at the Oct. 11 show, Bono explained that they were unable to enact a particular bit of stagecraft that involved bringing an audience member onstage because he had a cough, not to mention that the Edge had just recovered from COVID. (Worth noting: I tested positive for COVID for the first time the weekend after returning home, despite masking everywhere.)

U2 has announced an additional 11 shows at the Sphere, taking them into February 2024. Whether this is the end of the run, given the "unprecedented demand" (as the formal announcement states) or due to the fact that there is a glaring absence of other artists announcing Sphere residencies is still yet to be determined. But at what point does a Las Vegas residency become a caricature? At what point does the band get exhausted by flying in every night? At what point do the shows become a tourist attraction and not an artistic statement? U2 is a band that wants to keep doing things that are new and different; the members have always known when they're done with something, and these are not people who need the money. They've set the bar delightfully high, and whether you like U2 or are still mad they put an album on your phone, you've got to respect them for their endless willingness to be ridiculous in public.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caryn Rose