A few weeks ago, while U2 were making the video for their new single, Atomic City, on the Las Vegas Strip, Bono described the giant ball that has been stopping traffic in this storied city in the Mojave Desert as “a little venue down the road”. He was joking, of course, making out that the Sphere is the size, say, of the Baggot Inn of yore or McGonagles on South Anne Street – RIP. Experiencing U2:UV Achtung Baby Live on Saturday night, one thing is abundantly clear: Bono, we’re not in the Dandelion Market any more.
It’s not just the size, although the place does stand a whopping 112m – about 35 storeys – high. “This whole place is a distortion pedal,” Bono says early in the gig, which is as neat a description of the Sphere as any. Distortion is everywhere. In one visual segment, the wonders of mind-boggling technology render this cornerless venue into a box shape; shortly afterwards, thousands of colourful numbers and letters cascade down on the audience. It’s a moment that causes gasps in the 18,000-strong crowd. There will be many more gasps before U2 and the Sphere are finished messing with our hearts and our heads.
It’s disorienting at first, this concert that is also a light show that sometimes feels like a 3D movie or a theme park ride but that has four real-life humans at its beating heart. It’s a gig that sounds and looks and feels like no other you’ve been to.
The music, starting with tracks from Achtung Baby, U2’s 1991 album, including Zoo Station, The Fly, Mysterious Ways and One, is sublime. When they play Even Better Than the Real Thing, the vast wraparound screen fills with King Size, the artist Marco Brambilla’s maximalist homage to Vegas, Elvis Presley and the 33 movies he starred in. The effect is dizzying: the stage U2 are playing on appears to lift, and the audience are immersed in AI-generated artwork that is as head-melting as it is beautiful.
For much of the two-hour show, you don’t know where to look. Do you focus on the stage and on Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Bram van den Berg, the Dutch drummer standing in for the injured Larry Mullen jnr? (“Would you like to say something?” Bono asks van den Berg at one point. He simply points at his drum kit, as if to say he’d prefer to let it do the talking for him. “How very Larry of you,” Bono remarks.)
Or, do you look at the band on the high-definition screens above their heads? People who think Bono has a big-head would want to get a load of him at the Sphere, looming as large as Liberty Hall. He has laughed himself about the possibility of the audience being able to see his expensive dental work. At other times, the band appear disembodied or floating in bubbles or squares above their own heads. When U2 are not filling the screen, butterflies or stars or fireflies occupy the vast space. You look up. You keep on looking. You worry you’ll get a crick in your neck. You decide, on balance, it’s worth it.
U2 were more than half an hour late taking the stage. We weren’t told why but it was probably down to a technical hitch or two, given how many potential glitches there must be at this unique venue. At one point, for example, when the screens trick us into thinking we’re outdoors, looking across Las Vegas with clouds over our heads, a minor blip means you can see a small black rectangle in the “sky”.
Bono, who is singing with as much power as ever at 63, checks to see if the people in the Sphere’s top tier of seats can hear him whispering. “It costs $2.3 billion to hear those whispers,” he says, referring both to the cost of the venue and to its intricate, 1,586-speaker sound system. “We should have made it back by the 22nd century.”
If the visuals are sometimes overwhelming, the always-stunning music provides welcome ballast as the band play a trio of songs from Rattle and Hum – All I Want Is You, Desire and Angel of Harlem – on their Brian Eno-inspired turntable stage before returning to songs from Achtung Baby, which they follow with Elevation, Atomic City and Vertigo. The show’s final art, which caresses the audience like a balm, is also deeply moving. Es Devlin’s Nevada Ark comprises images of 26 endangered species in the desert around us. It is one of the night’s many nods to the climate crisis. The creatures float above us, an alternative fresco, while the band play With or Without You. They finish the gig with a soaring Beautiful Day.
The band are apparently not keen on their 25 nights at the Sphere being described as a residency. Instead, they are “inaugurating” or “launching” the venue that has expanded the concept of live entertainment. Perhaps it’s because Las Vegas residencies can have uncool connotations – Willie Williams, U2’s creative director, says he thought “Las Vegas was where rock’n’roll goes to die”. As Brambilla’s deliciously discombobulating King Size reminds us, however, Las Vegas is where no less than Elvis came to be reborn. So, not a residency, then. A band still aiming to hit new heights inaugurates and launches. Like a rocket. Like U2 at the Sphere. An unforgettable, mind-blowing event.
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