LAS VEGAS — Even better than the real thing? In the case of U2 at the Sphere in Las Vegas, which wraps up the band’s 2023 residency on Saturday ahead of its late-January return, it all comes down to perspective. Given the extraordinary immersion offered during the 130-minute thrilling ride, getting a sense of what’s real versus what’s imagined can be complicated.
It would be wiser to surrender to the awe-inspiring environment.
Magnificent in concept and passionate in execution, “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere” brims with possibility and suspends disbelief. Built at a cost of approximately $2.3 billion, the Sphere is the world’s largest spherical building and is designed to overwhelm people. Both the inner and outer “exosphere” are covered in LEDs, and the inside of the dome is covered with a 16K LED display; it’s an immersive marvel of engineering that extends behind, around, and over most participants’ heads. Approximately 168,000 speakers use spatial audio to ensure everyone hears the same quality, regardless of their location. 17,385 seats are located on floors behind the open floor, with more than half providing haptic feedback (total capacity 20,000).
The massive sensory assault blows away traditional parameters, including even those associated with lavish stadium concerts starring megastars, IMAX screens, and movies full of CGI effects.
U2 performs on a simple rectangular stage with a circular base modeled after a shiny turntable designed by producer-musician Brian Eno. The group utilizes the canvases of cutting-edge spaces to manipulate time, space and awareness in transformative, questioning and innovative ways.
Getting the first chance to test the dome’s potential, U2 at the Sphere represents a full-circle moment for a band whose “Zoo TV” tour changed the live music experience forever. Launched in 1992 in support of the band’s 1991 blockbuster LP “Achtung Baby,” it was arguably the most groundbreaking tour of the past 35 years and marked the debut of the now-ubiquitous video walls.
Specifically, the group paired visual spectacle with incisive and prophetic cultural commentary, exploring the saturation of mass media, pervasive materialism, and especially the increasingly thin lines between entertainment, news, and commerce. Alongside news broadcasts and shopping network presentations, questions and sentences flashed across the screens in rapid succession.
Some of the same elements remain in the Sphere concert.
The mind-blowing onslaught of text from “Zoo TV” unfolds during U2’s danceable song The Fly.” No word is bigger than the repeated declaration of “EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS FALSE.” In our age of fake news and viruses, all-caps The declaration now seems more realistic than it did thirty years ago. Other newly added expressions also encourage related concern and reflection. Of course, why stick to words when pictures are supposed to carry more value and validity?
If “Zoo TV” predicted futuristic developments like virtual reality, artificial intelligence and social media, “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere” brings them to life. The visionary show almost demands that fans passionately post to their followers.
Before the event starts, you can clearly see the internal architecture of the Sphere and familiarize yourself with the environment; Looking directly at the sky brings to mind looking through a giant telescope.
However, this situation breaks down when the concert begins. Imagine four monitor-style screens being turned on to show the group’s movements. You understand that the monitor images are not actually there, just part of the overall screen, but your brain tells you differently. After all, they are seemingly in front of your eyes. It’s like the image of a room with four digital walls and a ceiling appearing out of thin air, violating the geometry you know is there. Surfaces overflowing with flashing letters and numbers confuse and delight, distracting your gaze from the falling ceiling heading towards you.
This trick is repeated as helicopters fly into view, locating Bono with searchlights and super-magnifying him on the wall as their engines whir overhead. The magic happens again with mobile scrolls of Vegas-themed iconography. And it’s complete with an ultra-high-definition panoramic shot of the city, complete with details like traffic and up-to-date advertisements for Vegas attractions. These images must convey what’s happening on the streets in the here and now, right? Wrong.
In Sphere, fantasy and reality blend, bend and break. U2 wiped out the entire Vegas casino, business, home and road in a time-lapse reel during “Atomic City,” which effortlessly depicted beautiful cityscape scenery as well as witnessed structures falling into ruin and the land reverting to its own desert. format.
Opening with images of a young Elvis Presley, an optimistic John F. Kennedy, and a peaceful world spied from space, “To the End of the World” took its title literally and shook up its apocalyptic intent. Severe thunder, lightning and rising water were harbingers of imminent destruction. A cut to the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” emphasized the threat. An unforgettable image: A gas explosion in the open ocean has been reconstructed as a burning flag to show warming seas and pollution.
“With or Without You” more clearly revealed the terrible consequences of irresponsible actions. Filling the Sphere’s 160,000-square-foot interior screen with countless still-life images of birds, butterflies, plants, and other creatures, U2 reshapes the love song’s meanings with incredible urgency. The monochromatic artwork, reminiscent of a fresco ceiling in an ancient cathedral, gradually began to take on color during the “Beautiful Day” that followed. For U2, hope trumps despair.
Revealed in their songs and anthems, the group still operates with the firm belief that music can change the world. Despite the difficulty of focusing solely on the quartet, original member Larry Mullen Jr. Complete with Bram van den Berg holding the drum stool as he recovers from surgery, U2 remains a remarkable sonic force.
In their interpretation of “Achtung Baby” in its entirety, Bono and company replaced the youthful bravura and breathtaking tempo of the earlier days with a maturity, poise, and dynamic that gave the audience extra time to absorb the material. Most songs came with a slightly slower clip, revealing internal tension and skeletal details. Bono reached falsetto trebles with his beautiful voice, howled in exuberant choruses, and expressed a sensitivity that often goes unnoticed at big shows. Although he tweaked some approaches (“Mysterious Ways,” “So Cruel”) to accommodate the loss of range that often accompanies age, the differences were minimal.
Compared to his crazy irony and megalomaniacal persona in the ’90s, the singer opted for gratitude while balancing the roles of animated rock star and classical singer. Wearing a rosary around his neck and switching between a variety of glasses, Bono displayed expert showmanship and innate alertness. He knows when and how to get into messianic style to amp up the excitement or bring out the humor. Likewise, it anticipates circumstances that require the seriousness needed to calm things down or convey hurt feelings. Dramatic tendencies aside, Bono stands tall among an elite group when it comes to navigating a horizon that, in his own quirky words, ranges from “the sublime to the ridiculous.”
It helped a lot. Bassist Adam Clayton led the rhythm section with typically cool aplomb. Incredibly timeless guitarist the Edge served as a one-man army, responsible for producing ringing chords, driving leads, and a rich palette of harmonic tones. Edge also provided background vocals and keyboard parts. Primarily decked out in leather and black, U2 exuded the same coolness that fueled their arrangements, their essential underpinnings tugging against the excess of the surroundings.
U2 pulled back on the visual assault midway through the set. While subsequent artists were able to push Sphere’s abilities to their limits – if they existed at all – going “dark” provided a breath of fresh air and reestablished the essential connections between melody and message. The stripped-down versions of the songs “Desire” and “Angel of Harlem” reflected church atmosphere and emotional intimacy. “Love Save Me” echoed as a silent prayer. Tracks from favorites by Donna Summer (“I Feel Love”), Prince (“Purple Rain”) and the Beatles (“Drive My Car”) accompanied a mix of pared-down cover songs that transitioned into original fare. Limitations disappear in Sphere. Reinvention reigns.
“We can do whatever we want,” Bono said in one of his brief speeches to the crowd. Who will argue? Literal and figurative vertigo, desire, elevation, shooting stars, walks on the wild side: “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere” brings it all together. And much more.
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
U2 will continue its residency on January 26, 2024, performing at the Sphere, 255 Sands Ave., Las Vegas, through March 2; For tickets and more information: www.thespherevegas.com/shows/u2
Track listing from “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere” in Las Vegas on December 16:
“Even better than the real thing”
“Love Me Tender” (Elvis Presley cover) / “Until the End of the World” / “Paint It Black” (Rolling Stones cover)
“Who Will Ride Your Wild Horses?”
“We Are Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World”
“All I Want Is You” / “Walk on the Wild Side” (Lou Reed cover)
“Love Save Me”
“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”
“Love is Blindness” / “Viva Las Vegas” (Elvis Presley cover)
“Height” / “My Way” (Frank Sinatra cover)
“Where the streets have no names”
“With or without you”
“Beautiful Day” / “Gloria” / “Blackbird” (Beatles cover)