It’s called Sphere (no “the”) and in Las Vegas, its exterior – or exosphere – gave Friday night’s harvest moon a run for its money. The grand, glowing spherical addition to Vegas’s over-the-topness has been drawing justified awe since it first lit up the desert sky this summer (and has been snarling traffic with looky-loos taking photos, my taxi driver grumbled). It has changed the skyline – and has been billed as a game-changer for live music.
You can create a jaw-dropping US$2.3-billion venue with unprecedented bells and whistles – the world’s largest spherical structure, measuring 516 feet wide and 366 feet tall; the highest resolution LED screen on Earth; state-of-the-art acoustics, including more than 160,000 speakers. But without the artistry to match, it’s just a really impressive building.
On Friday night, in the hands of U2, Sphere was transformed into a cathedral.
U2 christened the high-tech wonder with music, heart and soul. The 18,000 or so fans witnessed – no, experienced – miracles of the very modern variety. Salvation in the blues – and in every colour under the sun.
“Hello. How are you? Where are we? Who are we?” U2 frontman Bono said, as live footage of the band members shot by drones appeared on the wall in bubbles. Trippy.
The show is called U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere, and the band inaugurated the place and their residency there with the first song on that album, Zoo Station. Footage sampled from U2′s technologically groundbreaking 1992 Zoo TV tour was shown on the technologically groundbreaking Sphere walls – organized in a cross shape – along with live shots of the band. Bono swung around his microphone stand on a pedestal atop a turntable-inspired stage designed by artist, producer and long-time band collaborator Brian Eno.
The crowd was immersed in breathtaking digital art and tricks. The ceiling seemed to descend on us. Captured by drone, the band appeared as if they were onstage, larger than life, and live, just above where they were actually playing. The venue felt like it was being turned inside-out, as its interior walls took on the appearance of the outdoors – in Vegas, in the desert, in a sea of water. Under the sun, under the stars. Elvis was in the building, thanks to the visual feast King Size, created by artist Marco Brambilla. (So were – for real – Paul McCartney, Jimmy lovine and Dr. Dre, Bono told the crowd.) You could hear Bono whisper – every word, clearly. You could see, very clearly, the details of his face. The puffing of his cheeks, in and out, as he played the harmonica on Desire.
“What a fancy pad,” Bono said. “Look at all this stuff.”
The band – frontman Bono, guitarist The Edge, bass guitarist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. – has been together since the 1970s. This was the first show they played without Mullen, Bono said, in more than 40 years. (It was Mullen who posted the now-famous note on their Dublin high-school billboard, seeking bandmates.) He is unable to play because of physical injuries, but has given the band his blessing to go forth without him.
Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg filled in admirably and humbly. “Let there be no mistake: There is only one Larry Mullen Jr.,” he said.
Also on Friday, U2 released the single Atomic City, a tribute to Vegas – a city the band has some history with. During the Joshua Tree era, U2 strolled through the streets to shoot the I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For video. Amid neon lights, Bono flirted with fans, The Edge strummed a guitar, Clayton, holding a beer, ducked into a cab. Then, in 1997, U2 opened their splashy PopMart tour here, with the giant lemon, disco ball and fast food-esque yellow arch. Beyond the fact that some of that stuff didn’t work on opening night (a long-time dedicated fan, I was also there for that), some followers of the band felt betrayed. Too showy; this wasn’t our U2.
Well, that was nothing.
U2 continues to drive possibility. Collaborating with boundary-pushing creatives including engineers and visual artists, and deep-pocketed financiers, the Irish band has created a spine-tingling experience.
During The Fly, as Bono sang “a man will rise, a man will fall,” the ceiling – a multicoloured jumble of sputtering numbers and letters – appeared to drop down toward the oohing-and-ahhing crowd. On Even Better Than the Real Thing, as Bono bellowed “you take me higher!” it felt like the stage was rising. It was a dizzying optical illusion, but wow.
The band did not play Achtung Baby in order, but did include all the tracks, including So Cruel, which they have performed live only once before. One was a reverent sing-along. “Sing it!” Bono commanded. We did. “Love is a temple; love the higher law.”
A burning flag created by Irish artist John Gerrard illuminated Until The End Of The World. A snowstorm of lights – like bits of paper on fire – fell during Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses. Northern lights-like imagery filled the place during Ultraviolet (Light My Way). For Love is Blindness, a single bug appeared on the blue-sky ceiling, joined by more and more and more, until it felt like we were in a fishbowl covered by insects and butterflies, blocking out the light. Artist Es Devlin’s stunning Nevada Ark paid tribute to at-risk plants and animals in the state. I was able to be wowed by this, despite my severe snake phobia.
A bit during Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World with a real string attached to an animated balloon and a fan brought up from the audience worked less well.
The band added a few other songs from their extensive canon, which will change throughout the residency.
There were some opening-night bumps; too much feedback on With or Without You was distracting. Bono, in high-resolution sweat and wrinkles, seemed to be straining his voice at times. He called out a few instructions to his bandmates. The show will surely get tighter as the residency continues. But the juxtaposition of the raw live music onstage with the over-the-top, down-to-the-details visual elements really only heightened the experience.
Some of the songs, including Atomic City and Where the Streets Have No Name, came with visuals that made the audience feel as if they were outside, the desert day turning into a starry night. Even Bono seemed astonished, looking around at the magnificence created by Industrial Light and Magic. He had his trademark glasses off for a bit; at times, his hands covered his face. Was he overwhelmed with emotion? Or were his eyes just bugging him?
After thanking members of the team sitting in the boxes amid other A-list celebrities , the band infused a final song, Beautiful Day, with some Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “We hope you have enjoyed the show,” Bono sang.
As the band left the stage, Bono paused for a moment, stopped and clapped for all of this one more time.
Along with the band’s residency is a free immersive fan portal, Zoo Station: A U2:UV experience at the Venetian hotel (connected to Sphere by a walkway). In a space conceived by long-time U2 collaborator Gavin Friday, fans can take a photo in Achtung Baby-inspired spaces, view photos of the band through the years by Anton Corbijn, stand on a replica of the Zoo TV B stage and create a gif, and do other deeply nerdy fan stuff. Up the spiral staircase (the space used to be a Barney’s store, RIP), a fancy 160-seat theatre cinema is screening U2 films. “I’m just so psyched,” said Robert (who did not want to give his last name) from Atlanta, dressed in a fancy War button-down, after screening From the Sky Down Friday afternoon. “That was foreplay for tonight.”
Las Vegas' newest high-tech concert venue, the Sphere, opened for the first time on Friday with a performance by U2.
The Associated Press