2023 Game-Changers: U2 & Sphere Expand The Possible (Cover Story)

ON THE COVER: U2 performs at Sphere in Las Vegas Nov. 1, 2023, in front of the art piece “Surrender (for U2) 2023” by John Gerrard (Photo by Rich Fury)

There are no clocks in Las Vegas.

Vegas operates with most of society’s basic guardrails either missing or at least set significantly wider than they are anywhere else. It is Sin City, after all, but it’s more than hedonism and excess. The hotels are outsized. The architecture is an amalgam of simulacrums. Scale is of no consequence. Those wide margins give plenty of room for possibility and imagination. It is a town built on considerable risk and considerable reward.

Sphere’s 2016 origin story starts with James Dolan, Executive Chairman & CEO, MSG Ent. Corp. and Sphere Entertainment Co., turning to David Dibble, Chief Executive Officer of MSG Ventures, and saying “Let’s reinvent live entertainment.”

A big, boundless risk-and-reward possibility perfectly suited for the city in the desert. Sphere doesn’t just happen to be in Las Vegas. Sphere – at least its first iteration – has to be in Las Vegas because Las Vegas is the only place that can tolerate such vision devoid of constraint.

And if Sphere had to start in Las Vegas, it also had to start with U2.

“It’s a unique, groundbreaking venue with amazing next-level technology, both visual and audio. U2 is acknowledged and renowned for cutting edge audio and visual into their live shows,” Arthur Fogel, Live Nation’s CEO of Global Touring, tells Pollstar. “Together with all that, you have U2’s ability to take those elements and weave them into an incredible live show.”

Irving Azoff, U2’s manager, says U2 as Sphere’s debutante speaks to the band’s long history of taking chances.

“They were the logical choice,” says Azoff, Chairman/CEO of The Azoff Company and a co-founder of Oak View Group, Pollstar’s parent company. “Who knows if the sound and video were gonna sync up? It’s like putting a man on the moon. Well, then let’s try to be the first man on the moon.”

THEY LIVE: U2 performs surrounded
by Es Devlin’s “Nevada Ark” inside Sphere.
Photo by Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

But first they had to be the first men in the Valley.

“We got the feeling that amongst the Sphere team, we’d been identified as prime candidates for the job of opening the venue,” The Edge, U2’s legendary guitarist, says. “So then we start to delve into the details of what the venue was all about.”

That meant a trip to Burbank, California, for The Edge and Bono, where a small-scale version of Sphere sits alongside the airport.

“There was a visual demo at one-quarter scale then there was a demo of the sound system,” he says. “Both of us left that initial meeting very excited and inspired. Then we talked to our own team who then gave us the bad news – which was not unpredictable – but they said, ‘If you think this is going to be easy, it’s not going to be easy.’”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained and U2 has ventured and gained plenty in their epic career.

The Irish quartet — in addition to Bono and The Edge, there’s reliable bassist Adam Clayton; Bram van den Berg is subbing on drums for Larry Mullen Jr. as he recovers from surgery  — isn’t just Pollstar’s 2023 Game Changer, they are our reigning Artist of the Decade and one of the greatest draws of all time. The current run at Sphere grossed $109,751,705 through the first 17 shows, an average of nearly $6.5 million.

U2 – from the “ZooTV Tour” in 1992-93, which introduced plenty of then-futuristic whizbangs, to “360°” with its famous claw stage  – frequently embraces the very tip of the cutting edge. And they’ve done it again – ironically enough at a venue that lacks tips and edges.

And they’ve done it again with a show – like “ZooTV” – built around the now-classic 1991 album Achtung Baby. A reaction to their perceived austerity and the world-historical swirl of events during the Cold War’s death throes, both album and show offered commentary on the then-new concept of media overstimulation and information overload. While the songs at the center of “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere” are the same, plenty else has changed in the last three decades. 

“We were happy for there to be echoes and happy for there to be rhymes but we didn’t want to build it as ‘The Return of ZooTV’  because ZooTV is so specific to that moment and it was a moment where visual overload was a new thing and it was novel and it felt fresh,” The Edge says.

ON YOUR KNEES, BOY: (from L to R) The Edge, Bono, Adam Clayton and Bram van den Berg (rear, on drums) of U2 perform at Sphere. Photo by Ross Stewart

The giant screens, resplendent with flashing text, and that supernova of lights that awed concertgoers on “ZooTV” don’t just pale in comparison to what happens inside Sphere. They aren’t comparable at all.

The 360-foot Sphere’s interior dome is a 160,000-square-foot, 16K video screen. The audio, designed by German firm Holoplot, uses state-of-the-art beamforming and processing that ensures every listener gets an ideal experience. It’s so precise it requires engineers to input the ambient temperature and humidity of Sphere’s interior for every show.

And it works. It works in ways that surprised even Azoff, who was engaged with Sphere from its earliest days.

“They say if you build a house and it comes out 75% as good as you imagined it’s a victory. Sphere came out 500%,” he says. “It will confuse you and change the way you think about music. … Words cannot describe what you are going to see. You can only experience it. It’s the best visual you’ve ever seen. The best sound you’ve ever heard.”

From the stage, Bono thanks MSG and Dolan – “These people are quite mad,” he says (correctly) with a Wonka smirk – and encapsulates Sphere’s possibilities: “It’s art and science … and rock ‘n’ roll.”

“But it doesn’t matter a shit if we don’t get close to the music,” he says and he’s right again.

None of the impressive visuals – and the word “impressive” doesn’t do it justice and there may not, to a writer’s chagrin, be an adjective that does – matter at all if the songs aren’t good. U2, of course, has a formidable and enviable catalog.

“The foundation is the music and the band and the intangibles of connecting and drawing an audience in,” Fogel says. “They are masters at that and the ability to weave the bells and whistles is a unique talent.”

But it’s also tough, The Edge says.

“The fun part and the real challenge is you’ve got this one giant canvas. How does it enhance the audience’s experience of these songs? 

“In the end, pretty pictures are not enough. It’s got to have an emotional resonance with the material because the songs are the boss,” he says. 

Achtung Baby is “very intense and very heavy,” The Edge says.

“It’s a heartbreak of an album,” he says. “So to do it justice but also not traumatize our audience was the real trick because it’s so heavy and bleak at times.”

Having set their sights on building the show around Achtung Baby, it was time to see how far Sphere could be pushed.

“We always look not at what the technology was designed to do but how can we abuse it and use it in a way never imagined, particularly with our sort-of punk-rock origins that seemed like a crucial element here and that was the beginning of a really fun journey,” he says. “It took a year or more to start pulling all the different threads together but once we’d committed and decided we were going to go for it, then we really rolled up our sleeves and started thinking and plotting.”

Azoff says U2 have a “work ethic and skill” at crafting a live show with obsession that’s rivaled only by the Eagles.

The end result is, actually, a little more restrained than one might expect given the venue and given the band and given the album. And that restraint invites interpretation; it provokes thought. 

The projection that greets the audience on arrival is a Brutalist reimagining of the interior of Rome’s Pantheon. Those who can peel their eyes away from the neon hypercolor of a DJ playing floor-fillers would notice a dove, flying in the high reaches of the dome. Did a bird get in here? It’s possible, but in this case, a trick. The bird rests. The bird flies through the oculus into the faux-night sky. It’s not this dove that heralds U2’s arrival to the stage, though. Not the beast of peace, but a war machine: a clattering helicopter. The primeval replaced by the postmodern, the sacred by the profane. The panels of the Pantheon crumble away. The skin of Sphere becomes, if briefly, translucent. The audience spies its whirring guts, the circuits and wires and whatsits. Bono becomes The Fly. The show begins.

For all that happens above – and it’s an awful lot – the stage is surprisingly spare. It’s a few circles, lit from within and serving as a tribute to Achtung Baby’s producer.

“We believed that we could find ways to use the screen that are different enough and interesting enough that it will sustain for a whole concert with a very bare minimum of staging,” The Edge says. “So that was the real challenge … to create an architectural design that doesn’t interfere with the screen. The breakthrough there was being inspired by Brian Eno’s LED turntable, which is a beautiful art piece. It’s such a simple but beautiful looking object and it uses algorithms so the colors of the turntable change randomly in a generative way. It’s always evolving and we thought that was a beautiful thing if we could apply that to a larger scale for our stage.”

Still, there’s plenty going on above. During “The Fly,” the audience is encased within what appears to be an ever-shrinking cube. It’s the most off-putting part of the show because the brain knows the actual shape of the building. U2 and Sphere quite literally square the circle.

“What was lovely about the piece for ‘The Fly’ is that nobody had imagined that what they’ve created was possible,” The Edge says. “It was such a beautiful surprise for the Sphere team because they’d never imagined that this screen could be utilized to create a new shaped interior.”

That’s just the beginning. During “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” the screen rolls with “King Size,” a piece by Marco Brambilla replete with Elvises of various verisimilitude. There’s Real Elvis, there’s Nicholas Cage in a Vegas chapel in an Elvis outfit, there’s Austin Butler as Elvis. There’s less famous impersonators and Elvis himself impersonating the would-be famous in his own films. There’s Vegas-era Elvis and Elvis-era Vegas. What is U2 trying to say? That even stars – even the first star, the biggest, the one all rockers chase – came to this silly city in the desert to be reborn?

MY HEAD IS SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN: U2 performs “Even Better Than The Real Thing” surrounded by Marco Brambilla’s “King Size” inside Sphere during the opening weekend of “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” in September 2023. Courtesy Stufish Entertainment Architects

There’s the piece “Nevada Ark” by Es Devlin, with its illustrations of extinct and endangered fauna of the Silver State, growing in ever-sharper detail. It makes you think: what is lost and what is won here?

And between, there’s the poignant, largely acoustic, non-Achtung part of the show. That’s when the eyes are sharp on stage, on Bono, now rock’s consummate, quintessential frontman and on The Edge, the genius guitar player, the essential harmonizer.

On Dec. 1, it’s when they sang The Pogues’ “A Rainy Night in Soho” in tribute to friend and countryman Shane MacGowan. And it’s when they sang a desolate version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” – a song of heartbreak and loss and a country riven by sectarianism that’s, sadly, again, always vital. How long, Bono sings, how long must we sing this song?

And then, after the quiet: “It’s time to wake the baby.”

The show’s encore is a rewind and an unwind from Achtung Baby’s dark weight.

“We had to find our way out of that with other moods,” The Edge says. “Hopefully the show ends in a really positive way.”


BUBBLE BOY: The “Achtung Baby” baby peers out from Sphere to the Las Vegas Strip on Sept. 29, 2023.   |  Photo by @FlyByChicago

It does with some of the band’s most hopeful tunes and with a thought provoking visual: first Sphere and then the rest of Vegas disappearing, returning to the desert, ending with an image of “Surrender (for U2) 2023” – a flag of burning methane – created by longtime collaborator Jon Gerrard (see cover). Much of the show is commentary on man’s relationship with the natural world, “but it wasn’t that we sat down one day and said this show is going to be about the environment, it just evolved into that,” The Edge says.

U2’s run at Sphere ends in March, after 40 shows – biblical that: 40 days in the desert.

“Forty shows will be it – it could go on and on – but that feels right,” Fogel says.

Phish is next in Sphere, but what’s next for U2? As ever, the world’s biggest band will no doubt once again test the limits of the possible.