U2 in Vegas: Take a trip inside The Sphere with Jim McGuinn - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Fresh from a weekend trip to Las Vegas to see U2 at the Sphere, my head is still spinning in every way. I’m exhausted and exhilarated, and will likely now have a benchmark to compare all concerts to for a while. Between the Taylor Swift Eras tour, Beyoncé’s Renaissance, and U2 at the Sphere, 2023 is shaping up to be a year when superstars redefined the concert experience. And besides the awe-inspiring visuals made possible by The Sphere, the U2 and Taylor shows shared similarities on concepts around mixing precision performance and spontaneity, entertainment and art, and gathering of communal tribes bound in allegiance to artists.

First off, we need to talk about this venue. The Sphere in Las Vegas, what’s the deal with that? Well, it’s a brand new 18,600 seat venue in the heart of the Vegas strip, like a giant glowing orb of a bowling ball, rising out of the desert amongst the already improbable and ridiculous architecture that is only possible in Vegas. It is a marvel, a weird jewel, a boondoggle and/or a venue to which others worldwide will struggle to live up to. It cost $2.3 billion to build! It’s the largest spherical building in the world! With literally the world’s largest 160,000 sq ft LED screen inside the venue, and 167,000 speaker drivers in the venue, promising perfect sound for every patron, regardless of whether they are on the floor or in the upper 300-level! The system can deliver sound thru the floorboards! (I can vouch for the sound – standing on the GA floor, it was perfectly Goldilocks – loud but not too loud, full but detailed, dynamic but intimate.) The venue has 4D effect options, too, like scent and wind experiences (though U2 apparently passed on utilizing these). The Sphere opened to much fanfare this fall with U2 as the guinea pig act to test out all the innovative new technology the venue offers.

Between the Taylor Swift Eras tour, Beyoncé’s Renaissance, and U2 at the Sphere, 2023 is shaping up to be a year when superstars redefined the concert experience.

U2 might be the biggest band of the entire post-classic rock era, rising from their Irish post-punk roots in the early ’80s to conquer the universe with albums like The Joshua Tree. This tour focused on my favorite of their catalog, 1991’s Achtung Baby!, an album (and the Zoo TV tour that followed) that was incredibly prescient with its themes around the collision between technology (“The Fly,” “Zoo Station”) and humanity (“Mysterious Ways,” “One”), years before Radiohead built on the same for OK Computer. As to updating the concept 30+ years later, U2’s bassist Adam Clayton pondered, “how do you update the Zoo TV concept? Because all the predictions of Zoo TV have come to pass: fake news, media overload, the MTV generation, wars fought on television with camera systems that could follow a missile down the street, as it was in the Iraq-Kuwait war at that time.”

Arriving in Las Vegas at midnight, you could see The Sphere as we drove onto the Strip, and from our 17th floor hotel room half a mile away, a giant visual cacophony, mixing beautiful animations with adverts for shows and future events—it was one of those best/worst uses of technology that only billionaires and places like Vegas can likely create. It’s definitely the only venue you can stare at the exterior of for hours and be entertained.

I pause here to give big thumbs up to our pals Andre and Colleen, who made this weekend possible. Andre is a master of planning and navigated the presale back in April when he scored these tix and invited my wife Christine and I to join them on this mission. (Whether to pre-atone for the conspicuous consumption that is Vegas or just to get out of the cacophony, we spent much of Friday hiking down a ravine near the Hoover Dam and eating BBQ in Boulder City, about 30 minutes from town, which energized us for the show that night.)

With much anticipation we crossed the street and made our way to the Sphere, entered the GA area and walked right up to a spot on the floor that was comfortable, not overcrowded, and roughly 30 feet from the stage—so casually close after 35 years of seeing U2 on tours where that proximity was next to impossible. Pre-show hype was handled by one time Gorillaz percussionist and DJ Pauli Lovejoy, who mixed the greatest hits of Gen X flawlessly, pumping his arms and singing along with the crowd. When the warm up includes spins of Blur and Nirvana, New Order and The Cure, you realize this evening isn’t going to be about breaking new musical ground artistically, but more a celebration, culmination, of entertainment and joy. And it was.

Taking the stage to a remix of their own “Lemon,” Bono dramatically placed the wraparound Fly sunglasses on, and the band took us on their journey, both back to 1991 and into the future of concerts, with incredible visual presentation of the Achtung songs. With a launch into album opener “Zoo Station,” the huge LED screens behind them that had appeared as a concrete wall then ‘cracked open’ to reveal a cross of blinding light, soon filled by panels of the band and expanding to unveil the massiveness of the screens. It was just the first of many ‘oh wow’ moments.

Performing on a stage modelled after a Brian Eno designed Turntable, with a circle like a platter inside a square like a record player plynth (all surfaces also LED for color changes and effects), the band were bringing themselves closer together than on past tours that featured huge catwalks. This also helped define the issue of stage lighting, which was accomplished with 4 thin “lamp posts” that minimized potential obstruction of screen views.

It is about the visuals or the music? Definitely both!

Opening the show with several highlights from Achtung Baby, the show evoked but did not copy the Zoo TV tour. “The Fly” included a moment when the Sphere was turned into a square, then the ceiling seemed to descend upon us – I have no clue how they did that with rounded LED screens, but it was incredible. So too was the Vegas / Elvis overload on “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” where the scrolling imagery made the stage appear to be rising—the scale of the screens creates the opportunity for illusions and true mind alterations. Are the visuals great accompaniment to the music or is the band a soundtrack to the visualizations?

But from there the focus shifted, and one easy-to-miss aspect that was some of the most challenging artistically for the presentation was in mixing premade visualizations with live footage, directed and projected upon the huge screens in real time. It was some of the most exciting concert footage I’ve ever seen, and even 30 feet from the band, you were tempted to get lost staring at the huge visual replications of them projected just above the real thing.

After eight songs from Achtung, the band shifted gears and went semi-unplugged, with a gorgeous version of “All I Want Is You,” and we were rewarded that night with first-time-during-Sphere performances of three songs from 1983’s War album, “Two Hearts Beat as One,” “Seconds” (featuring Edge on lead vox, first time played since 1985), and an acoustic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” that was breathtaking in its reinvention. This was the part that reminded me of Taylor’s two-song acoustic set on the Eras tour, a way to reclaim some spontaneity amidst a tour filled with clockwork precision everywhere else. During “Two Hearts Beat as One” came my favorite small moment of the show, when Bono asked Edge to keep playing the chords and began singing a bit of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Rescue” over the similar progression. It was off-the-cuff, and reminded us all that at one time U2 were a new band who looked up to similar post-punk bands like Echo and Joy Division for their earliest inspiration.

U2 at The Sphere | photo by Jim McGuinn

Throughout the entire show, Bono dropped in multiple references to other artists and songs, singing lines of classics from Elvis to Lou Reed, Prince to Van Morrison, The Stones, Donna Summer, and even a bit of their own “Gloria” inside the show-closing “Beautiful Day.” During the acoustic portion, the visuals were smaller and simpler too, turning The Sphere into a club show, if only for a few minutes. This part of the show also brought me back to my youth – I was lucky enough to be coming of age and the second show I bought my own ticket for was U2 on the 1983 War tour (after The Clash in 1982) at Chicago’s Aragon Theater, just a few weeks before they would help define another iconic venue with their Live at Red Rocks show, album, and concert video.

U2 were four guys just a few years older than me, and they were kicking down the doors of classic rock to make way for the new wave / post-punk / college / alternative / indie music—the whatever name fits your era, it once threatened to knock out the classic rockers, but in the end maybe just elevated U2 to equal status, as their music shifted to include more references to those that had climbed rock’s peaks before them. Step forward to 1985 and I was an intern for Island Records in college and it was one of my first experiences seeing the world of post-show backstage: Adam had glasses of wine in each hand, Bono regaled minglers and Top 40 programmers with recontouring stories, and Edge pulled the shy me aside and asked me about my band when I tried to tell him how much he’d inspired me. “Stick with it, if we can make it, it’s proof that anybody can,” he told me. Perhaps in theory but actually, no, of all the acts emerging in the ’80s they are the only one still at it at a level of this magnitude, who have navigated a career and remained relatively relevant across decades.

Following the acoustic mini-set, the band finished playing the deeper tracks of Achtung Baby!, which led some fans to wonder if they’d have preferred a bit of “I Will Follow” or “Pride” or any number of more ‘classic’ U2 songs than hearing live renditions of “Acrobat,” “So Cruel,” or “Ultraviolet.” I guess that depends on your point of view on the band – do you relish the deep dive or want nothing but the hits? Are a band like U2 a fossil to be admired for our pleasure, or a living organism, encouraged to take artistic risks with their music? Do you come to Vegas for The U2 Experience or a U2 Concert?

From there we were set for an end of the set and encore that brought to the fore again the mind-blowing visualizations made possible by The Sphere – created by a team led by U2’s longtime production manager Willie Williams and including collaborations with commissioned artists Es Devlin, Marco Brambilla, John Gerrard, and even Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic. I don’t know if or how these works will translate to ‘regular’ venues, or if these intensive works can only happen at the Sphere, but that points to some questions about where this all leads – who will be the next artists to play The Sphere? How will the technology be maximized? Who can afford the ROI on production costs, and how does it all scale if you are NOT a band with the kind of worldwide affluent fanbase of a U2?

U2 Plays "With or Without You" at the Sphere in Las Vegas

In the end, the show was and is a massive success – with more dates announced taking the run up thru February 2024. It was wild as a fan who has seen thousands of shows to be so awestruck by the sounds and visualizations, pointing to endless future possibilities. Despite the absence of founding drummer Larry Mullen, Jr, who is recovering from health issues and was replaced by Bram Van den Berg of Dutch band Krezip, the group was powerful and balanced between tight and loose, taking a confident career victory lap, delving deep into one of their most fertile periods, and exploring new innovation in concert technology. At one point early in the show my wife said to me, “he’s kind of a cheeseball, isn’t he?” about Bono as The Fly, and in particular he seemed relaxed and enjoying this experience with multiple asides and frequent props offered to Adam, Edge, Brian, The Sphere, the crew, the staff, the crowd, the environment, and the world. In past tours U2 has dabbled with humanitarian politics and overt spirituality, at The Sphere the messages were simpler – to love each other.

In past tours U2 has dabbled with humanitarian politics and overt spirituality, at The Sphere the messages were simpler—to love each other.

So in the end was it worth the road trip, the expense, the flights, just to see a band you’ve seen 12 times over 40 years? Absolutely. It appears that the sound is tremendous from every seat, and the visual spectacle is truly mind-blowing. It was cool to be surrounded by fans who had traveled from around the world to experience this show, and the band is still able to deliver incredible and even at times inspired performances some 40+ years into their career. I recommend this show if you are a fan, and if you can’t, look for future residencies and try to see ANY show at The Sphere. Like Red Rocks (yet TOTALLY opposite in many ways), I would not be surprised if The Sphere becomes the destination venue “worth the splurge” to see your favorite act when they play there.

U2 at The Sphere | photo by Jim McGuinn

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