Better Than The Real Thing: U2 Breaks Ground At Groundbreaking Sphere With Spectacular Performance

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U2 with Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Bram van den Berg sitting in for Larry Mullen, Jr. performing at the opening of Sphere on Sept. 29, 2023 in Las Vegas. The image features animals and plants at risk of extinction in the state of Nevada and was created by the artist Es Devlin. (Photo by Rich Fury)

Las Vegas — Last night (Sept. 29), James Dolan and his Sphere Entertainment, with help from U2 and a slew of cutting-edge technology and technologists, put all their chips in the center of the table in what was easily one of Sin City’s largest and most audacious bets—a $2.3 billion gamble on a venue conceptualized and built over the course of seven years that they believed would do nothing less than change the live experience.

“Jim Dolan, thank you for the Sphere, you’re one mad bastard, one mad bastard,” Bono said from atop a turntable-shaped stage (a concept for which the singer thanked the great producer/musician/artist Brian Eno) from which U2 had literally and metaphorically just played a groundbreaking set. He then articulated what surely the vast majority of the 20,000 gathered would have said to the MSG chairman if given the opportunity: “Thank you for this wondrous place.”

Achtung Baby! Sphere Is Here And The Furture Is Now! (Cover Story)

And how could one not feel gratitude for this titillating multi-sensorial live experience? The concert’s most exhilarating technological moment, of which there were many, came early in the set– most significantly during “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” a song whose very title suggested a manifesto of sorts. That message, improving upon the analog live experience, was most fully realized with a swirl of high-def digital imagery that transformed Sphere’s mesh covered walls into a psychedelic garden of upwardly moving 4D earthly delights that made it seem as if the entire building itself was moving upwards. The effect challenged one’s balance and stimulated a feeling of giddiness, without any mind-altering substances. Still, the sensation begged one reasonable question: “Am I tripping?”

Opening Night of U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation)

That angst-filled existential question, however, was in no way a constant as the veteran rock superstars made it clear they don’t need no stinkin’ immersive technological bells and whistles to rock, unless, of course, they want to. For the first time since 1978, the Irish quartet was a trio with an injury to Larry Mullen, Jr., necessitating the addition of Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg, of the band Krezip, who fit in seamlessly with the locked-in Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton.

The set opener, “Zoo Station” made it obvious that the band’s canonical catalog need nothing but the “real thing” to transport fans to other dimensions with more modest technological accompaniment. That song’s tech enhancements began gradually, with static cement thunderdome-like walls slowly cracking open and bright light slowly revealing a grid design with images of each member performing live and graphics that slowly enveloped the space.  It wasn’t overly splashy like “Real Thing,” and this would be the group’s more nuanced approach for a good chunk of their two-hour set.

A few songs later, during their hit “Mysterious Ways,” the group simply projected an expanded version of themselves performing live, like a Jumbotron, but the images were far more crisp and clear thanks to the highest resolution LED screen on earth (16K x 16K). In fact, roughly half the show, including jams like  “Desire,” “Angel of Harlem,” the gorgeous “Love Rescue Me,” “So Cruel” and “Acrobat” kept it relatively straight ahead with minimal immersive technologies.

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(Photo by Stufish)

That said, there were still many other mind-blowing tech-enhanced productions, including the word and data explosion during “The Fly” that climbed the Sphere’s walls to its towering apex and folded down to create a ceiling, making it feel as if one were inside a stock ticker on hyper-speed and/or a Jenny Holzer word art installation; “End Of The World” began with a scaled-back version of Elvis’ “Love Me Tender,” and ended with three images of the earth ripped apart by severe weather and The Edge’s searing guitar that eventually melted down to a single burning flag (courtesy of artist Uili Lousi) which then segued into the falling embers seen throughout “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

Elsewhere, the technology was more simple, elegant, even poignant on songs like “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” which featured a real-world knotted sheet sent up to the top of domed roof via pulley that was met by an LED balloon. A  fan would be invited on stage to hold the virtual balloon and swing on the knotted sheet. Similarly, the cascading vaporous rainbows that danced across Sphere’s interior during “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” were tasteful and measured.

The set’s final one, two, three, four, five punch was powerful and a deft mix of the band’s biggest hits and tech enhancements. It began with U2’s hooky new single and tribute to Las Vegas “Atomic City” which featured the Las Vegas skyline and looked as if it were a live feed from outside Sphere’s front doors with moving cars and pedestrians. That image, though, slowly deconstructed with buildings disappearing eventually transforming the cityscape into a pre-development chaparral-filled desert landscape. This bled into the foot-stomping “Vertigo” and “Where The Streets Have No Name” where the band looked to be playing outside. Then came “With Or Without You,” which showed a colorless animal montage featuring plants and animals from the state of Nevada which are on the endangered species list, courtesy of artist Es Devlin. That image would become an explosion of color for the foot-stomping finale “Beautiful Day.”

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Before The End Of The World: U2 performs before a desert landscape meant to approximate Las Vegas before it was inhabited. (Photo by Rich Fury)

It was a savvy decision to have U2, one of the greatest draws of all time and a daring group unafraid of technological innovation, open Sphere. It’s also worth noting the significance of U2 celebrating its 1991 album Achtung Baby, which found the band taking a hard turn and heading in a more experimental direction with help of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The run that followed, 1992-3’s “Zoo TV Tour,” featured a hodgepodge of over-stimulating production, including flashing lights, dozens of video screens, interpolated audio clips, Eastern European Trabants and more with themes warning against the power and control of mass media, technology, big brother and other forces.

Thirty-two-years later, those technologies and themes seem quaint compared to today’s state of technology and more dire issues facing the world. Here, though, the Sphere’s technologies, with the help of Willie Williamson, who has led U2’s live show design for over 40 years, and a slew of visual artists including,  Brian Eno, Marco Brambilla, Es Devlin, John Gerrard and Industrial Light & Magic, helped make U2’s messages more articulate, powerful and exciting,

U2 were Pollstar’s Artist of the Decade in 2019 with their grosses during that period totaling $1.038 billion with 9,3 million tickets sold on 255 shows, according to Pollstar Box Office Reports. The band’s first show in Pollstar’s database, dates back to November 1981 with a concert at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. Since then, over $2.1 billion in box-office grosses were reported from more than 800 performances at venues around the globe. Over 26 million tickets have been sold on 13 tours since that ‘81 performance that came during the group’s “October Tour.”

Perhaps the historical live highlight of U2’s career, until now, came in 2011 with the band’s “360° Tour” of stadiums with the giant claw that set the record for the highest-grossing tour of all time – a record they held for more than eight years – based on a $735 million box-office haul from 7.3 million tickets sold during the tour’s almost two-year span.

Opening Night of U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation)

While the group’s 25 “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere” shows won’t approach that kind of boxoffice, the impact of this groundbreaking show may be felt for generations. The performance wasn’t a full unmitigated embrace of new immersive live technologies, either, but it set a bar of how technology can be tastefully integrated into a live performance without overwhelming the senses (save that for the first EDM act to play Sphere).

The concert audio was warm and crisp, though it was strange not seeing stacks of amps and monitors on stage. It wasn’t clear if the beam-forming technologies, as touted, were utilized to broadcast different segmented sounds to different parts of the Sphere. Same for temperature, haptic and olfactory technologies integrated into the building.

Though down a pivotal member and faced with an inordinate amount of pressure opening a venue of this stature and import, U2 are pros and veterans (they originally formed in 1976 under the name “Feedback”), and seemed both at ease and musically locked in. There were a number of Sin City homages, including parts of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” and many mentions of The King, as well as the Chairman of the Board’s (i.e. Frank Sinatra’s) “My Way” along with references to weddings and atomic tests. The band loosely vamped on several classics, including Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and “Moondance” and the Beatles’  “Blackbird,” “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Love Me Do.” 

Opening Night of U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation)

Bono shouted out and thanked a number of luminaries in attendance from the stage, including Sir Paul McCartney (“Just know that we love you, and we’ve stolen a lot of your songs.”), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg as well as those in the industry who made the evening possible. This included  Jimmy Iovine, Irving and Jeffrey Azoff (“Thank you for bringing sanity to the situation.”), promoter Arthur Fogel (“Thank you for your calm reason.”), Michael Rapino (“For your inspired leadership.”), Guy Oseary, Paul McGuiness (“We would not be here without you.”), Creative Director Willie Williams (“A big moment for him.”), Joe O’Herlihy (“Who’s been doing sound for the last 45 years as of yesterday.”), Gavin Friday and Jake Berry among others. In an emotional moment, Bono also dedicated a song to the late Jimmy Buffett and family and friends on hand.

By the end of this wildly impressive night, it was clear James Dolan’s ambitious all-in $2.3 billion wager paid off. The “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere” performance showcased a phantasmagoric sliver of Sphere’s immersive technological capabilities and at the same time, no babies were thrown out with bathwater. U2 has never lost sight of what’s brought them phenomenal success over the course of their storied 45-year career—great songwriting, powerful performances and risk taking.