Wandering through the gloriously tacky Venetian Resort in Las Vegas on Friday night, it is impossible to miss the happy, slightly tired, distinctly Irish heads on three middle-aged men in U2 T-shirts. They’ve just come from their beloved band’s opening-night gig at the most talked-about music venue in the world.
In case you hadn’t heard, the Sphere is a vast, intergalactic-looking orb just off the Vegas strip that cost more than $2 billion to build, features 1.2 million sliotar-sized LEDs, holds 1,586 speakers and stands 112m – or about 35 storeys – high. The venue has become the most striking structure in a bacchanalian city known for look-at-me brashness. Faux Venetian canals with light-up gondolas and hotels boasting imitation Eiffel Towers can’t compete with the largest, noisiest and brightest spherical structure in the world.
Even if one Irish wag is overheard nicknaming it the dome, in a nod to the Rose of Tralee festival, an explosive opening-night concert by U2 in an otherworldly venue has fans reaching for superlatives all night. But for the three friends in T-shirts – Declan Maunsell from Mallow, Co Cork, Paul Fitzgerald from Cork City and Eoin Barrett from Tralee, Co Kerry – it is first and foremost about the music. “It’s always a spiritual experience for us coming to see U2,” Barrett says. “It’s like going to church. Why do we travel across the world to see U2? We travel across the world to see them because it moves the soul.”
Having said that, has seeing the band in such a spectacular setting brought the experience to new heights? “The minute they came on I just felt an immense sense of pride. To be on the opposite side of the world and to see the Irish have taken over Las Vegas this weekend is just fantastic.”
Like many fans, the three men are sad that Larry Mullen could not perform because of a need for surgery on and recovery from various injuries, but they appreciate Bono dedicating All I Want Is You to his missing bandmate. The night also happens to be the birthday – one he’ll likely never forget – of Mullen’s replacement on drums, Bram van den Berg.
“It was emotional, phenomenal, extraordinary – it was everything I hoped it would be,” Maunsell says. “We’re going again tomorrow night. The sound quality was out of this world. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The band were in great form, very fit, and they dealt with the Larry thing very well. You’re in Vegas, but you’re seeing so many people wearing U2 T-shirts around the place, it makes you proud to be Irish.”
They all appreciate Bono’s impromptu performance of Dancing in the Moonlight, by Thin Lizzy, a nod to those who have travelled to Vegas from the band’s home country.
‘It’s instantly the greatest concert venue on earth, game, set, match. The sound, the projection, the high levels of definition. I’ve never seen anything like it’— Bo Bernhard from Las Vegas
The lads are also happy with the set list, which is, considering the event is officially called U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere, understandably dominated by songs from that 1991 album, such as Mysterious Ways, Even Better Than the Real Thing and Zoo Station. But there were other treats from the Brian Eno-inspired neon turntable stage, including Desire and Angel of Harlem, from Rattle and Hum, and their new song Atomic City – a love letter to the city where they’ll play 25 nights between now and December.
How much have they all paid to come here? “We wouldn’t like to disclose that,” Barrett says, laughing. All agree it is money well spent, with Fitzgerald saying: “We are moving into a new era where these acts aren’t going to be around any more – Springsteen, Dylan, U2. We’re going to be watching videos and holograms and harking back to these days and cherishing these memories.”
Outside of the Irish contingent, Alicia and Steve Marusky have travelled to Vegas from New Jersey to see the gig. They’ve been following the band “since we were kids”. “My older sister always listened to them. I followed them through my high-school and college years,” Alicia says. “It was visually amazing,” Steve says about the Sphere’s wraparound screens and “epic” soundscape. “It ruins going to concerts forever in the future, because you’ll never see anything that visually amazing behind a band like that. Everybody should experience it at least once in their lives.”
‘It was riveting. We were 10ft from the stage. The band was right in your face. They were captivating and energetic.’ Are you a big U2 fan? ‘I’d never heard of them before. I just wanted to see the venue’— Carissa Kozacek from California
Alicia was struck by the intimacy the band managed to achieve despite the vastness of the space and by “the dynamic sound and visuals”. “You could hear Bono so clearly when he stopped and talked, you really felt like you were just standing next to him.”
She also appreciates Bono’s heartfelt banter: he gave shout-outs to the family of the late musician Jimmy Buffett, who died on September 1st, and to Paul McCartney and Dr Dre, who were in the audience. Some of the other well-known people who attended the band’s big launch night included – deep breath – Matt Damon, LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, Snoop Dogg, Sheryl Sandberg, Sting, Chelsea Clinton, Maria Sharapova, Jimmy Kimmel, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom and Jeff Bezos. The band’s former manager Paul McGuinness was also in attendance.
Less positive, according to Alicia, were the “moments of dizziness” caused by some of the more overwhelming visual effects. From her description, you wouldn’t want to be there if you were suffering from vertigo. Steve heard from a security guard that a couple of families had to leave early because it was too much for some to handle. This aspect proved a plus for 17-year-old Charlie Runyon from Minnesota, who went to the gig with his dad, also Charlie. “It was better than a ride at Disney World. It was trippy.”
Marasol Sanchez and Bo Bernhard, a glamorous couple from Mexico and Las Vegas, are also among the fans spilling wide-eyed out of the venue, where crowds have gathered to ogle the city’s latest architectural wonder and buy merchandise. “It’s instantly the greatest concert venue on earth – game, set, match,” Bernhard says. “The sound, the projection, the high levels of definition. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Neither had seen the band play before. Sanchez was “blown away”; Bernhard says that, despite the vastness of the venue, “it still felt intimate, like you were having a conversation with Bono”.
Carissa Kozacek, from California, is equally effusive. “It was riveting,” she says. “We were 10ft away from the stage. The band was right in your face. There wasn’t one bad seat in the house. They were captivating and energetic.” Is Carissa a big U2 fan? “I’d never heard of them before. I just wanted to see the venue.”
Hold on a Las Vegas minute. She’d never heard of U2 before seeing them tonight? “No, I just wanted to go to the opening. I think they were in Sing 2.” (She is correct. Bono plays a recalcitrant rock star lion, Clay Calloway, in that animated movie.) Any favourite songs from the night? “They have this song called, I think, One Love.” She may not know Bono or Edge from Adam, but at least she knows a magnificent song when she hears One. And if stepping into an unknown, untested venue such as the Sphere was a gamble for U2 in the city where everyone loves a roll of the dice, it’s one that has paid off in spades, at least according to the fans, both old and new.
You can win a trip for two to see U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere in Las Vegas. Find out how in Ticket, the Irish Times culture magazine, on Saturday, October 7th