1. Last Friday, I traveled to Las Vegas to see U2 perform the first show of 25-night residency at a new, state-of-the-art, $2.3 billion entertainment venue called the Sphere. The residency is billed as “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere,” and it includes a complete performance of their classic 1991 album. (Though not in the original sequence.) I then spent four days processing the experience. My goal is to understand what this all means for one of the world’s biggest rock bands, one of the world’s largest spherical buildings, and the future of live music.
2. However, I recognize that not everybody cares about meaning, only yay-or-nay verdicts. For that crowd: I thought the Sphere was pretty cool! The enormous screen was dazzling! The sound was incredible! Achtung Baby is one of my favorite albums ever! I’m glad I went!
3. Here’s what I’m somewhat “nay” on: Is this extremely expensive bowling ball at all practical for non-Irish stadium acts who don’t have 18 months to prepare a two-hour spectacle? Plenty of artists could play at this venue. But who should? Harry Styles is rumored to be interested. I assume Chris Martin is already trying to get Coldplay in there. Any top pop star you could name — Taylor, Beyoncé, The Weeknd — would work. The jamband accounts I follow on what used to be known as Twitter are hyping Phish for the Sphere, but I wonder if that would be a good fit? (I don’t know that you can “improvise” video effects that humongous.) It takes certain delusions of grandeur to function in this space. You need ideas big enough to fill that huge canvas. Not even U2 is able to pull that one off completely.
4. At the same time I’m having trouble imagining a band that isn’t U2 in that space. The Sphere is overpowering and ridiculous, technologically advanced and rooted in an old-time “more is more” show-business sensibility, and supported by some of the industry’s most powerful players even though it’s possibly unsustainable. Put another way: The Sphere is U2.
5. Important formatting note: I understand that the “correct” way to refer to the Sphere is simply “Sphere.” But I am going to continue with “the Sphere,” because 1) it just feels better and 2) it seems way less Orwellian. Or should I say Bradbury-ian? James Dolan, the comically terrible owner of the New York Knicks and a part-time blues guitarist who dreamt up the idea of the Sphere, told Variety last week that he was inspired by the 1950 Ray Bradbury short story “The Veldt,” about a futuristic nursery outfitted with video screens that virtually transports children to exotic locales. “I don’t think that we quite achieved Bradbury’s vision with it,” Dolan confessed, “and I don’t really want to completely achieve his vision, because in the end of his story, the parents get eaten by the lions.” A billionaire reads a cautionary tale about hubristic humans who are destroyed by technology, and he decides to ignore the warning by doubling down on his own hubris. What could possibly go wrong?
6. To be clear: I did not witness anyone in the audience being eaten by lions. At least not literally. We will have to see about the figurative part in the weeks and months ahead.
7. At the end of opening night, Bono thanked Dolan from the stage, along with (among others) U2’s manager Irving Azoff — a man once referred to as “Satan” by Don Henley — and Live Nation’s oily CEO Michael Rapino. This is the cursed blunt rotation one must puff with in order to play a venue like the Sphere.
8. U2 played the same setlist the first two nights. The first eight songs were taken from Achtung Baby. Then there was a four-song acoustic set culled entirely from 1988’s Rattle & Hum. After that, they played the remaining four songs from Achtung Baby, followed by a six-song encore. The most effective use of the Sphere in the main set occurs during “Until The End Of The World,” in which an enormous gas flare burning in the form of a flag towers over the band, an apocalyptic image that evokes both the Book Of Revelation and U2’s own 1983 live album Under A Blood Red Sky. (It is based on a piece by the Irish artist John Gerrard taken from images captured in the South Pacific Ocean by the artist and activist Uili Lousi.) The flare is hyperreal — it looks like something you could feel while also resembling a dream. As U2 brought the song home, the burning flag cut an awe-inspiring and chilling figure, a nightmare brought to vivid life that made the horror tucked inside one of U2’s most reliable warhorses palpable again.
9. The screen is big. Really big. I’m talking “goddamn big” big here. I sat in the 100-level section above the standing-room-only G.A. section, and I was probably too close. The 200 or 300 levels might be preferable. You could also sit at the blackjack tables inside the Venetian Resort and still have a good view.
10. The weirdest use of the Sphere is during “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” which is set to a garish collage of images that depict various eras of Elvis Presley, with particular focus given to his Vegas years. At one point the images stream downward behind the stage, fooling the eye into thinking the stage is rising. It was the single most disorienting part of the set, and pretty unpleasant. It was meant to be excessive, and it was excessive but to an overly excessive, “This is too excessive!” degree.
11. Bono referenced Elvis throughout the opening night. He made the inevitable dad joke about how Elvis “has definitely not left this building” before christening the Sphere “an Elvis chapel” and “an Elvis cathedral.” Later, he sang “Love Me Tender” while images of JFK and a rocket launch flashed oddly on-screen. It all pointed to the familiar tension of 60something-year-old rock stars finally giving in to the temptation of a high-end Vegas residency. Nodding to Elvis tacitly acknowledges the (mostly) bygone stigma of Sin City being a bastion for show-biz has-beens, which more than anyone else Elvis signifies. But Elvis was only 34 when he made his late-’60s Vegas turn, nearly 30 years younger than Bono is now. He was in the midst of a creative and commercial resurgence. He was as handsome as he ever was in his life. His initial performances are rightly considered legendary. U2 meanwhile is in a less certain and more battered place. On opening night, they were almost apologetic about not playing with founding drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who is convalescing from a recent surgery. In interviews, Bono and The Edge have pledged that Larry will definitely be back while intimating that his recovery will be long and challenging. (His replacement is Bram van den Berg, a capable 41-year-old Dutchman who looks like Dax Shepard.) Creatively speaking, this is the second consecutive U2 live show centered on an old album, following the massive stadium tour celebrating The Joshua Tree in the late 2010s. In the encore, they debuted their new single “Atomic City,” which borrows liberally from Blondie’s “Call Me” and reads like an attempt to re-write two of the biggest (and worst) U2 hits of the last 25 years, “Elevation” and “Vertigo,” which naturally sandwiched “Atomic City” in the encore.
12. After those songs came the most publicized use of the Sphere so far, via the countless camera-phone videos that have circulated online: “Where The Streets Have No Name,” in which a desert vista is seamlessly replicated across the 160,000-square-foot LED screen. It is a spectacular presentation. What’s most impressive is how all those pixels create the illusion of natural light, even inside a dark orb at 10:30 on a Friday night. It is an inherently bogus trick that for about five minutes feels wholly authentic, the one undeniable “I have never witnessed anything like this in my whole life” moment of the concert. I can’t really compare it to any other large-scale concert I have ever seen. I can only liken it to “The Veldt,” only without those parents-eating lions.
13. If you hate it when people shoot videos with their phones at a concert, do not go to the Sphere. I doubt that any venue on Earth will more strongly compel the audience to capture images on their phones. I suspect that Kylie Jenner could hand each audience member a basket of adorable kittens and they would still keep their phones fixed on that screen.
14. I also shot videos on my phone. I justified this by telling myself that keeping some video records would help with the writing of this column. But in truth, I shot videos on my phone out of Pavlovian impulse. “The screen made me do it” sounds like the set-up of a David Cronenberg thriller, but I’m afraid I have to cop to being James Woods.
15. “I could barely take any videos which actually rules because I just FULLY was in it,” a friend texted me the next day. She also mentioned that she was on mushrooms during the concert. So keep that in mind if you end up seeing U2 at the Sphere. Personally, I would not take psychedelics in this environment. I’m more of a “cabin in the woods” drugs person. The “Even Better Than The Real Thing” sequence already feels like a hallucination on its own.
16. What all those viral videos of the Sphere haven’t conveyed is how, for about a third of the concert, U2 used that big screen like it was a normal screen set up at a normal arena or stadium. This concert is not non-stop mindfuckery — much of the time you’re just staring at a giant Bono and a giant Edge and a giant Adam and (less often) a giant Bram. This was likely a good thing in terms of maintaining the audience’s mental health, though it does speak to a larger question: What exactly do you do with this thing?
17. Surveying my photos and videos, I can see that I framed them all the same way, and it’s how most people framed their photos and videos — heavy emphasis on the big screen, with the band positioned at the bottom to accentuate their relative smallness. This is meant to represent the scale of the Sphere, but it also depicts the simplicity of the stage itself. This was also lost in the deluge of phone videos: U2 appears to play on a platform no more elaborate than the typical set-up at a college campus open-mic night. It’s a circle designed to look like a turntable. (It’s apparently borrowed from Brian Eno. I wonder if he keeps it in his basement.)
18. Because the Sphere is designed like a theater, with the seats arranged into four levels plus the G.A. section facing the stage — rather than the wrap-around seating you get in an arena — U2 felt smaller and more vulnerable than usual, four fragile musicians surrounded by that honkin’ screen on one side and stacks of humans on the other.
19. The most obvious critical observation one could make about the camera-phone phenomenon is that it squares the circle on what U2 started with the Zoo TV tour 30 years ago. The point back then for U2 was using technology to comment on (and condemn) the use of technology as a means of cutting humanity off from their most essential selves. The big screens fed the audience a steady stream of stimuli while always pointing out that gorging on visual stimuli will rot your brain. This observation is obvious because it is true: Inviting 18,000 people inside of a giant metallic eyeball where they can stare at a Statue Of Liberty-sized video screen via the additional screens of their phones renders the satirical elements of Zoo TV officially moot. But it is not a deliberate “point” of “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere.” There is nothing post-modern or ironic about this show. It has no discernible ideology, just spectacle.
20. The most interesting quote in that Variety story comes from Willie Williams, U2’s long-time creative director, who was unusually blunt about the challenges of working in the Sphere. “With all the big stuff I’ve done for U2 and anyone else, we don’t start with the equipment, we start with the idea,” he said, “and then figure out what we need to realize that idea.” The Sphere meanwhile begins and ends with the equipment. The idea part seems a little lost.
21. Zoo TV is a nostalgic reference point for this residency, not a philosophical one. But I am not above nostalgia as it pertains to this era of U2. Before the concert, I stopped by Zoo Station: A U2:UV Experience, a 12,000-square-foot installation at the adjoining hotel. Part U2 museum and part theme-park attraction, Zoo Station is where you can sit inside of a Trabant car, stare at Anton Corbijn photos, and nurse designer cocktails from the upstairs Ultra Violet Lounge. It was like stepping inside the liner notes of Achtung Baby, only without a naked Adam Clayton or (again) any trace of sardonic humor.
22. In the actual show, the most potent shot of Zoo TV revivalism comes right away with the first two songs, “Zoo Station” and “The Fly.” Bono theatrically puts on his Zoo TV shades at the start of the former number, and those familiar text phrases assembled by Mark Pellington flash behind the band during the latter song. Was I thrilled to see possibly the greatest arena-rock show ever assembled (which I never got to see in person) briefly recreated? Absolutely. It was my favorite museum piece of the night.
23. What Zoo TV obscured back in the early ’90s is made clear by this Vegas residency: Achtung Baby is a strange album to put into arenas and stadiums. It is not a larger-than-life, crowd-pleasing work naturally aligned with bombast and grand gestures; it is intense, introspective, and loaded with adult songs about marriage and divorce and the mysteries of the human heart. Zoo TV papered over that by leaving out certain songs. But because these Vegas shows pledge to feature the entire record, you can no longer hide tracks like “So Cruel,” “Ultraviolet (Light My Way), “Acrobat,” and “Love Is Blindness,” which formed a suite that closed the proper set. For me, those songs hit the hardest emotionally, though they weren’t quite suited for this specific environment. (“Elevation” got a much bigger response.)
24. The most surprising part of the residency’s opening weekend was the mini set of Rattle & Hum songs in the middle of both shows. I personally love Rattle & Hum, but the checkered reputation of the accompanying documentary has given the album an unfair reputation as the record where U2 unconvincingly attempts to present themselves as a grizzled American blues band. At my show, Bono intimated that the band might play a variety of tunes in their acoustic sets, but so far it’s been all Rattle & Hum. Two of the songs — “Desire” and “Angel Of Harlem” — are big hits that U2 plays most nights. One of the other songs, “All I Want Is You,” is rare, and the last number, “Love Rescue Me,” is super rare. (Before this residency, it had been played only four times since 1990.) To compound the shock of busting out this deep cut, Bono dedicated “Love Rescue Me” to the late Jimmy Buffett, which prompted me to later Google “Bono Jimmy Buffett” and learn that Bono and Buffett were once aboard a plane that was shot down by Jamaican police on suspicion of drug smuggling, an incident recounted in Buffett’s “Jamaica Mistaica.”
25. Sadly, U2 did not play “Jamaica Mistaica.”
26. In the history of U2, Rattle & Hum is notable for being the album that drove them toward the Eurotrash pranksterism of Achtung Baby. After music critics accused U2 of being overly serious poseurs playacting at being American roots musicians, they moved quickly to remake themselves as the polar opposite of that caricature. This has been recounted numerous times in U2 lore, and Bono does it again in the residency tour program. (“The album could have been called ‘The Importance Of Not Being Earnest,'” he writes, repeating a line I’m sure I’ve heard him say in documentaries and his memoir.) U2’s relationship with spectacle grew even more extreme with their next tour, PopMart, which also debuted in Las Vegas back in 1997. That tour was much bolder in its embrace of crassness-for-crassness’-sake, a mirror for an exceedingly crass period in pop culture. But, like Rattle & Hum, it confounded critics and prompted U2 to do another 180 back to “earnest simplicity” for The Elevation Tour. Since then they have been slowly working their way back to a different kind of dogma-free spectacle embodied by the Sphere.
27. “That’s what we started out wanting from the very beginning of the band is just to smash the fourth wall, get to our audience,” Bono recently told CBS News This Morning. In the ’90s, U2 did this by using artifice to smash through artifice, pointing out the invisible wall of omnipresent media immersion surrounding us all in order to make it visible and therefore capable of being transcended on the journey toward something deeper and truer. This is not what the Sphere is about. The meaning of “get to our audience” has changed. Now it’s about cutting through the noise for the sake of getting noticed at all. Why does a band play a venue as ostentatious as the Sphere if they don’t want social media flooded with video clips of deserts rising and flares flaring?
28. U2 is nothing if not a band that believes resolutely in the power of its own gigantism to bring people together. This belief has not abated in the many years since their prime on the pop charts. It explains why U2 is known to people under the age of 30 as the band that gave away a new album for free by inserting it, without public consent, into tens of millions of iPhones. What they were trying to do was engineer an instant monocultural moment. What they found instead is that the average person now is more invested in the sanctity of technology than the sanctity of music. (At least the sanctity of U2’s music.) This is the lesson carried forward to the Sphere — U2 has stopped trying to be bigger than our machines. They let the lions eat them.
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