U2’s Return to Las Vegas at Sphere: A Show of Ambiguous Scale

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In the world of Las Vegas, where grandeur is the norm and extravagance is commonplace, it’s a place where the extraordinary can seem strangely ordinary. A city where glitzy facades are accessible to everyone, blurring the lines between the simulated glamour and the genuine article. Las Vegas, a hub for beloved performers ranging from superstar D.J.s to cheeky magicians and bona fide vocal heroes, creates a unique atmosphere that defies expectations.

And there, under the shimmering lights of Las Vegas, stood Bono on Friday night, closer to the audience than one would expect, yet occasionally adrift in the grandeur surrounding him. Bono and his band, U2, were headlining the opening show at Sphere, a groundbreaking performance venue boasting a colossal exterior screen and an equally immersive interior. This concert marked the beginning of a 25-show residency titled “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere,” scheduled to run through the end of the year.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, no other band embraced grandiosity with as much fervor as U2. Their visual presentation was marked by a commitment to futurist communication. Thus, U2’s choice to showcase Sphere’s capabilities as a venue made perfect sense—a messianic band for a messianic venue.

For two hours, Bono, The Edge on guitar, Adam Clayton on bass, and Bram van den Berg standing in for Larry Mullen Jr. on drums grappled with a venue that was equally obsessed with size, grandeur, and spectacle. The setting was opulent, and the gestures were often monumental. However, despite the vividness of the surroundings, there was an elusive quality to this performance, which alternated between moments of intimacy, grandiosity, and meandering.

The show heavily featured U2’s 1991 album “Achtung Baby,” a pivotal release that marked a departure from their earlier anthems towards more ambitious and unconventional sounds. Playing the album in its entirety (although not in sequence) led to peaks and valleys. On “Mysterious Ways,” Bono and The Edge’s harmonious vocals shone. Bono, renowned for his signature contortions reminiscent of someone receiving an electric shock, delivered his impassioned howls with dedication, at least in the first half of the show. Throughout, Clayton remained dutiful and stoic, while van den Berg brought a raw fervor that Mullen didn’t quite approach.

However, some of the era’s iconic songs felt somewhat less impactful than usual. Both the signature ballad “One” and the hauntingly poignant “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” felt tentative and less emotionally invested than their usual renditions. This feeling extended to the somewhat dry version of “Desire” later in the show. A set of “Achtung Baby” tracks, including “So Cruel,” “Acrobat,” and “Love Is Blindness,” bordered on gloomy and suffocating, leaving the vast venue feeling inert.

The performance reached its peak towards the end with a triumphant sequence featuring “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You,” and “Beautiful Day.” Here, U2 used the venue’s capabilities to their full potential, transforming the room into a bright, vibrant space reminiscent of a nightclub moved outdoors. It was at this point that the audience, predominantly consisting of 40- and 50-somethings, including loyal fans sporting vintage U2 shirts and Vegas enthusiasts in flashy attire, truly connected with the band.

Prior to this, during the new song “Atomic City,” the entire screen transformed into a clear view of Las Vegas streets, with buildings being deconstructed as the song progressed—an innovative visual gimmick. (During some parts of the show, the band scarcely utilized the sphere, if at all, or only for displaying oversized videos of themselves.)

Earlier in the performance, the screen was used just as extensively but with less impactful results, highlighting the challenge of filling such a massive canvas. At one point, a long rope, reminiscent of a magician’s never-ending handkerchief, stretched from the floor to the dome’s peak, intersecting with a balloon illustration. A young woman joined Bono on stage, walking with him as they held the rope. For a while, she sat on it like a swing, an awkward and potentially unsafe display that puzzled and distracted the audience.

When the screen was at its busiest, it often felt cluttered, featuring phrases reminiscent of Barbara Kruger during “The Fly,” or digitally sharp artwork that could have been generated by an AI program like Midjourney. (The illustrations of endangered animals that appeared in the sky toward the end of the show were an exception.) At times, the spectacle ventured into discomfort, as during “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” when the screen overflowed with Vegas icons and characters from films set in the city, creating a dizzying downward motion that made the stage seem slightly tilted, evoking seasickness.

Moments like these emphasized that U2’s performance, while a concert, also served as a backdrop for showcasing Sphere’s technological marvels, as well as its idiosyncrasies. The four movable spotlights behind the stage and a buzzing drone added to the technological flair. However, this was not the same type of conceptual spectacle as U2’s iconic Zoo TV Tour, which originally accompanied the release of “Achtung Baby.”

Sphere is the brainchild of James Dolan, a polarizing figure known for his involvement in New York sports and real estate, who invested $2.3 billion in bringing this venue to life. Sphere appears to be ahead of its time, offering a glimpse of what future architecture might resemble in a few decades. Its entire exterior surface serves as a continuous LED screen that is always active, displaying a range of images (although they do repeat). Observing it from the window of a descending airplane or a taxi the night before the show, one might have seen it as a pumpkin, a smiling emoji, a tearful eye, or an ocean teeming with creatures.

Sphere is both impressively detailed and subtly stunning, making an impact not just in terms of its size—it stands at 366 feet and is not even among the 40 tallest buildings in Las Vegas. Its power derives from the novelty of its shape, even in a city already home to a pyramid, a palace, and a castle. (Dolan has expressed plans to replicate similar structures in other cities.)

However, within Sphere, it’s primarily a concert venue, albeit one with unique advantages and challenges. During lulls in the performance when the space between the band, the massive screen, and the audience felt cavernous, the result was reminiscent of the empty expanses of a corporate convention gig. In a stadium show, a low-energy performance can often be masked—here, there was no place to hide.

This is because, despite the venue’s visual grandeur, the band itself bore little of that burden. U2 performed on a stage roughly the size of what one might find in a regional theater anywhere in the country. While augmented by a Brian Eno-inspired turntable structure (although used somewhat ineffectively), it was an oddly vulnerable and inelegant setup for a band still very much in demand.

At the end of the night, Bono took a moment to express his gratitude. He commended Jim Dolan, describing him as a hard worker and a bit eccentric

, and thanked a roster of executives and special guests, including Paul McCartney, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Flavor Flav (though the latter was not acknowledged in the audience).

This folksy display of gratitude highlighted the immense effort, both visible and behind the scenes, that went into the evening’s performance. It also underscored the unresolved tension that persisted throughout the night—was this a grand spectacle or an intimate show? Did it emphasize grandeur or intimacy? Was it extraordinarily mundane or mundanely extraordinary?

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