ACHTUNG, BABY: U2 christened the Sphere on Sept. 29 in Las Vegas. The image features animals and plants at risk of extinction in Nevada, created by artist Es Devlin. (Photo by Rich Fury)
Bono to Jim Dolan: “You’re one mad bastard”
LAS VEGAS — James Dolan and his Sphere Entertainment, with help from U2 and a slew of cutting-edge technology and technologists, put all their chips in the center of the table in what was easily one of Sin City’s largest and most audacious bets — a $2.3 billion gamble on a venue conceptualized and built over seven years that they believed would transform the live experience.
“Jim Dolan, thank you for the Sphere, you’re one mad bastard,” Bono said from atop a turntable-shaped stage (a concept for which the singer thanked producer/musician/artist Brian Eno) from which U2 had played a groundbreaking set. Bono then articulated what the majority of the 20,000 gathered would have said to the MSG chairman if given the opportunity: “Thank you for this wondrous place.”
And how could one not feel gratitude for this titillating multi-sensorial live experience?
The concert’s most exhilarating technological moment came early in the set during “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” That message, improving upon analog technology, was most fully realized with a swirl of high-def digital imagery that transformed Sphere’s mesh covered walls into a psychedelic garden of 4D earthly delights that made it seem as if the entire building itself was moving upwards.
The special effects challenged one’s balance and stimulated a feeling of giddiness, without any mind-altering substances.
For the first time since 1978, the Irish quartet performed without the injured Larry Mullen, Jr., necessitating the addition of Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg, of the band Krezip, who fit in seamlessly with the locked-in Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton.
The set opener, “Zoo Station” made it obvious that the band’s catalog needed nothing but the “real thing” to transport fans to other dimensions with more modest technological accompaniment.
The song’s tech enhancements began gradually, with static cement thunderdome-like walls slowly cracking open and bright light slowly revealing a grid design with images of each member performing live and graphics that slowly enveloped the space. It wasn’t overly splashy like “Real Thing,” and this would be the group’s more nuanced approach for a good chunk of their two-hour set.
A few songs later, during their hit “Mysterious Ways,” the group projected an expanded version of themselves performing live, like a Jumbotron, but the images were crisp and clear, thanks to the highest resolution LED screen on earth. In fact, roughly half the show, including jams like “Desire,” “Angel of Harlem,” the gorgeous “Love Rescue Me,” “So Cruel” and “Acrobat,” kept it relatively straight ahead with minimal immersive technologies.
That said, there were still many tech-enhanced moments, including the word and data explosion during “The Fly” that climbed the Sphere’s walls to its towering apex and folded down to create a ceiling, making it feel as if one were inside a stock ticker on hyper-speed.
“End Of The World” began with a scaled-back version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” and ended with three images of the earth ripped apart by severe weather and The Edge’s searing guitar that eventually melted down to a single burning flag (courtesy of artist Uili Lousi), which then segued into the falling embers seen throughout “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”
Elsewhere, the technology was more simple, elegant and poignant on songs like “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” which featured a real-world knotted sheet sent up to the top of the domed roof via pulley that was met by an LED balloon. A fan was invited on stage to hold the virtual balloon and swing on the knotted sheet. Similarly, the cascading rainbows that danced across Sphere’s interior during “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” were tasteful and measured.
The set’s final punch was powerful and a deft mix of the band’s biggest hits and tech enhancements.
NEVADA, USA – SEPTEMBER 29: The Sphere is seen during the opening night with U2:UV Achtung Baby Live concert at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States on September 29, 2023. The Sphere is a spherical music and entertainment arena in Paradise, Nevada, near the Las Vegas Strip and east of the Venetian resort. The project was announced by the Madison Square Garden Company in 2018, and construction was underway the following year. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
It began with U2’s hooky new single and tribute to Las Vegas “Atomic City” which featured the Las Vegas skyline and looked as if it were a live feed from outside Sphere’s front doors with moving cars and pedestrians. The image slowly deconstructed, with buildings disappearing, eventually transforming the city scape into a pre-development, chaparral-filled, desert landscape.
It bled into the foot-stomping “Vertigo” and “Where The Streets Have No Name,” where the band appeared to be playing outdoors. Then came “With Or Without You,” which showed a colorless animal montage, featuring plants and animals from Nevada on the endangered species list, courtesy of artist Es Devlin. The image became an explosion of color for the foot-stomping finale “Beautiful Day.”
It was a savvy decision to have U2, among the greatest draws of all time and a daring group unafraid of technological innovation, open Sphere.
It’s also worth noting the significance of U2 celebrating its 1991 album Achtung Baby, which found the band taking a hard turn and heading in a more experimental direction with the help of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The run that followed that record, 1992-3’s “Zoo TV Tour,” featured a hodgepodge of over-stimulating production, including flashing lights, dozens of video screens and interpolated audio clips with themes warning against the power and control of mass media, technology and big brother.
Thirty-two-years later, those technologies and themes seem quaint compared with today’s state of technology and more dire issues facing the world. The Sphere’s technologies, with the help of Willie Williamson, who has led U2’s live show design for over 40 years, and a slew of visual artists including Eno, Marco Brambilla, Es Devlin, John Gerrard and Industrial Light & Magic, helped make U2’s messages more articulate, powerful and exciting,
U2 were Pollstar’s Artist of the Decade in 2019 with their grosses during that period totaling $1.038 billion with 9,3 million tickets sold on 255 shows, according to Pollstar Box Office Reports.
The band’s first show in Pollstar’s database, dates to November 1981 with a concert at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. Since then, over $2.1 billion in box-office grosses were reported from more than 800 performances at venues around the globe. Over 26 million tickets have been sold on 13 tours since that ‘81 performance that came during the group’s “October Tour.”
While the group’s 25 “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere” shows won’t approach that kind of box office grab, the impact of this groundbreaking show may be felt for generations. The performance wasn’t a full unmitigated embrace of new immersive live technologies, either, but it set a bar for how technology can be tastefully integrated into a live performance without overwhelming the senses (save that for the first EDM act to play Sphere).
The concert audio was warm and crisp, though it was strange not seeing stacks of amps and monitors on stage. It wasn’t clear if the beam-forming technologies, as touted, were used to broadcast different segmented sounds to different parts of the Sphere.
Though down a pivotal member in Clayton Jr. and faced with an inordinate amount of pressure opening a venue of this stature, U2 are pros and veterans (they originally formed in 1976 under the name “Feedback”), and seemed both at ease and musically locked in.
There were a number of Sin City homages, including parts of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” and multiple mentions of The King, as well as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” along with references to weddings and atomic tests. The band vamped on several classics, including Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and “Moondance,” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” “Sgt. Pepper” and “Love Me Do.”
By the end of this wildly impressive night, it was clear James Dolan’s multibillion wager paid off. The “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere” performance showcased a sliver of Sphere’s immersive technological capabilities. On its own, U2 has never lost sight of what’s brought them success over the course of their storied 45-year career —great songwriting, powerful performances and risk taking.