“See the world in green and blue / See China right in front of you / See the canyons broken by cloud / See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out / See the bedouin fires at night / See the oil fields at first light / See the bird with a leaf in her mouth / After the flood all the colors came out…”
When reminiscing about seeing U2 playing the Sphere in Las Vegas, the rush of imagery in those words sung by Bono during the bridge of the band’s smash hit “Beautiful Day” continually floods into my mind. The legendary Irish rock band’s residency playing their classic album Achtung Baby at the new technical marvel of a venue has been much buzzed about around the globe, and justifiably so. With decades of concertgoing under my belt, U2 at the Sphere certainly sticks out as one of the most unique musical experiences I’ve witnessed… even if it is a bit odd having one of the biggest rock bands of all time essentially playing second fiddle to… a building.
As the concert started, the digs seemed rather drab. The auditorium walls appeared to be sort of rusty industrial panels, but once U2 took the stage and were partway through the opening song “Zoo Station,” the “walls” began to crack, opening up into any array of screens. It’s a trick that could only be pulled off on what’s now the most impressive screen in the world, a 16k marvel that essentially surrounds the audience.
From there the pure visual assault was on. U2 sounded stellar ripping through the biggest hits off Achtung Baby (the Sphere’s completely hidden audio array is also world-class) while the images around them dazzled in brain-melting ways. For “The Fly,” the walls became a Matrix-like technicolor rainbow of flickering numbers and letters. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” became a soft, shimmering floating of glowing particles akin to those interstitial scenes in Oppenheimer. And in the most optically staggering moment of the night, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was accompanied by comically over-the-top gaudy and glittering cascading Vegas imagery pulled largely from ostentatious old movies — it’s literally the most visually overstimulated I’ve ever been… to the point where it actually gave me a touch of motion sickness that forced me to fully divert my eyes from anything but the actual guys from U2 on the stage.
The stage U2 performed on was actually quite tiny for a band of their size, closer to something you’d find at a 1,000-capacity room like the Knitting Factory than the mammoth arena stages they normally play. As a result there’s a strange tension between the intimacy of their actual performance and the Sphere screen around them. It’s almost like trying to have a romantic date at a sports bar during the opening day of the NCAA Basketball Tournament — no matter how good the chemistry, the background noise (which can be exciting and emotion-packed) kind of smothers the experience. It also brought to mind the giant video screen at Cowboys Stadium, where it’s often observed that fans struggle watching the actual action on the field because the crisp massive video screen makes it hard to focus on anything else.
With that obviously in mind, U2 only played about half of Achtung Baby before transitioning into a more subdued visual presentation for some songs from Rattle and Hum. While the spotlight videos of the band members on the screen still massively towered over the actual gents, it was a pretty clear “Hey, we’re still actually here, please keep that in mind and watch us” choice.
But things ramped up to the extreme once the group finished up the remainder of Achtung Baby and reached the encore and the greatest hits portion of their set. After an electric version of “Elevation,” perhaps the Sphere’s best visual treat came during the group’s new single “Atomic City.” The screen basically displayed a full view of the Las Vegas strip as if the building was not there, a mind-twisting effect that only became cooler once cranes started appearing and deconstructing each structure one by one until nothing but a stunning desert backdrop was left. The closing run of “Vertigo,” “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You” played with the open scenery before things closed out with “Beautiful Day,” where literally “after the flood all the colors came out” and led to a screen filled with an vibrant ecological collage of animals.
It was in those final moments where it really felt like the technology and the band were fully in sync and symbiotically crushing it. While I’ve never particularly been a U2 fan, it’s blindingly obvious why the group has ascended to the heights of rock’s all-time greats, even when it was easy to be blinded by the structure around them.
In terms of bigger thematic takeaways from seeing U2 at the Sphere, one thought kept popping into my head: “Oh wow… rock guys finally figured out EDM visuals.”
U2 has long been on the cutting edge of concert technology, like the 1991 “Zoo TV Tour” in support of Achtung Baby, which helped push forward massive screens as a standard part of big tour setups. But in the recent decade or so, electronic dance music acts have been doing much of the innovation when it comes to visual aids for live music. Because EDM stars are often tethered behind a console with laptops and turntables — inherently much less visually engaging than rock or pop stars, who can move around the stage and engage more directly with the audience — the genre’s megastars have upped the game when it comes to providing visual spectacles on the screens around them while playing their tracks. Sure, the oft-trippy digital worlds of these intense visuals can lead to people watching the actual performers perform less intently, but it creates a more all-encompassing event (especially when… umm… chemically enhanced). The general rockist elitism position has long been to look down on the EDM acts as compensating for lack of being interesting live performers, but it makes sense for a band like U2 that isn’t afraid to take some risks to actually embrace the EDM visual component to try to further evolve what a rock show can visually be.
I can virtually guarantee that I was the only one in the Sphere thinking, “You know what U2 at the Sphere reminds me of? Seeing Alison Wonderland at Red Rocks.” But seeing the EDM standout at the world famous Colorado amphitheater is undeniably the closest thing to the Sphere experience that I’d experienced, as it combined the majesty of a special venue with video projections (explosive flames, majestic oceans, colorful cathedrals, etc.) that were truly next level and wildly enhanced the concert’s vibe. It’ll be interesting to see if U2 is the outlier in this sense, or if more huge rock bands of their ilk adopt a similar visual approach in order to try to further the immersion for ever-more-distracted modern audiences.
Perhaps it’s also good to think of the Sphere in terms of Red Rocks and its kin. There are a select few venues across the globe — the nearby Gorge Amphitheatre included — that end up on a ton of fans’ bucket lists. They’re the select few spots where the experiential majesty of each makes it worth sojourning to, regardless of who’s playing. And while normally these spots are carved into a naturally gorgeous spot, the Sphere could easily make a case to be the rare indoor outlier in the bunch. The Madison Square Garden Co., which built the sphere, has plans to build other Spheres, including one slated for London, but for now the Vegas version stands as a one-of-a-kind site.
It also obviously should be stated that these Sphere concerts aren’t the most economically accessible shows. Available tickets for the rest of U2’s week residencies — which were extended through mid-February — run from roughly $500-$1,800 per ticket (with the general admission floor sold out through the run). Fugazi shows for $5 these are not. Obviously, that price point isn’t accessible for many if not most folks. (I certainly couldn’t afford it, I just happened to get a press ticket.) But to be fair to U2 in the skewed entertainment economic marketplace of Las Vegas, those ticket prices for such an immersive experience with an iconic band isn’t that bad. Tickets to Adele’s sold-out residency at Caesars Palace have a starting price point that’s hundreds higher on secondary markets, and that’s without the draw of the Sphere.
While I wouldn’t say everyone needs to throw down a grand to see the show, the cost is at least justifiable in certain situations. Take, for example, the parents of one of my pals who flew out to Vegas to see U2 at the Sphere because they’re such superfans that they’ve seen the band 30-plus times. Is the Sphere experience worth the price tag for them? Absolutely.
It will also be interesting to see what the future holds for the Sphere as a music venue. The amount of work it takes to create the visuals to accompany the live music has to be extremely time intensive, meaning it’s very likely a residency-only situation that won’t ever see casual tour stops for top acts. Paul McCartney attended the opening night of U2 at the Sphere, and he seems like he could be a perfect fit for the venue, but so could everyone from visually inclined modern stars like Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to MSG favorite Billy Joel to Las Vegas’ own the Killers. It’s exciting to imagine, even if entirely abstract at the present.
In a lot of ways, U2 at the Sphere is Las Vegas. It’s a loud, expensive, overwhelming sensory overload that can be thrilling, fun, nauseating, glitzy, glorious, dirty, confusing, uplifting and disorienting in a way that no other place matches. Perhaps returning to Bono’s belted “Beautiful Day” lyrics distills the feeling of being enveloped by the Sphere’s screen while taking in complex interweaving of Las Vegas, U2 and the Sphere…
“You love this town even if it doesn’t ring true / You’ve been all over and it’s been all over you.” n