Imagine a spherical building embedded in the Earth that stands 366 feet high (twice as tall as Epcot’s Spaceship Earth), is 516 feet wide, houses 875,000 square feet, and seats nearly 19,000 people – making it the largest spherical building in the world. Now cover the interior with 160,000 square feet of 16K resolution LED screens. That’s the new Las Vegas Sphere that opened in September 2023 with U2 and a 40-show residency titled U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at the Sphere.
A work trip to Las Vegas coupled with a 30th wedding anniversary brought an opportunity to attend one of the U2 shows. It turned out to easily be the best show I’ve ever seen, from the special effects to the audio quality to the comfort, ease of entrance, view of the stage, and the songs presented.
I was never a huge fan of U2, though I recognized the importance of their music. That was until the release of Achtung Baby in 1991. At that time, the group had hit a ceiling with their musical styles and messages. Their previous album Rattle and Hum (1988) had been met with mixed reviews. Achtung Baby was the band going in a new direction, inspired by music like Nine Inch Nails, and with the addition of synth effects and drum machine parts. However, creating the album caused such acrimony that at one point bass player Adam Clayton pulled a George Harrison and handed his bass to Bono saying “You tell me what to play and I’ll play it. You want to play it yourself? Go ahead.” The band nearly broke up but thankfully reconvened, re-listened to the sessions, and decided they were better than they remembered.
Achtung Baby being the album covered at their performance in The Sphere convinced me to attend the show.
Once in Vegas, we visited U2 Zoo Station, a two-story “museum” of sorts situated in the Venetian Shops. There you can paint a “Zoo Review” car with digital spray paint, watch a full-length high-def U2 concert movie, and buy souvenirs. It’s more interesting than it may sound because the treatment is well done, with eerie remixed U2 songs playing, walls displaying lyrics, and a bar.
The Sphere at The Venetian is shockingly large and can easily be seen as you land in Vegas. The exterior is constantly shifting into various colors, swirls, and even advertisements. It often will show a cartoon “face” that glances and even smirks at golfers at a nearby course. The interior lobby is expectedly futuristic, with the same swirling audio from the U2 Zoo Station. The seating capacity is just shy of 19,000 with very steep rows but comfortably wide seats.
The opening act was DJ Pauli “The PSM” Lovejoy who plays mashed-up songs from the 1970s and 1980s. It got people dancing and established the audio quality we were about to experience.
The concert opened with U2 singing a Choral Intro (apparently a Brian Eno song) while wandering onto the stage. The interior walls slowly cracked open, with falling dust and debris, initially showing a bright throbbing light that’s “behind” the LED-displayed concrete wall. U2 broke into “Zoo Station”, followed by about 25 songs and a show that was over two hours long. U2 drummer Larry Mullen isn’t playing with the band at the Sphere due to a recent surgery and some lingering health issues. Instead, Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg took on the responsibilities.
Various special guests have appeared at the U2 concerts in the Sphere, including Lady Gaga. When Paul McCartney was in the audience, Bono broke into a rendition of “Blackbird.” At our concert, he sang a few lines from “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode to honor Martin Gore who was in attendance.
At one point, the interior wall of the Sphere showed the exterior landscape of Las Vegas, making it look like we’re all sitting outside watching U2 perform on a street stage. The walls of the Sphere bend over the top of you; when they show the buildings, the ground, and the sky, it feels like you’re outside. Many of the effects are disorienting but not so much as to make you uncomfortable. One effect makes the spherical ceiling look flat; as it slowly descends, the walls close in and you feel like you’re being squeezed into a tiny venue.
U2 performed nearly all the songs from Achtung Baby, but added classics like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Desire.” The show closed with “Beautiful Day,” the interior of the Sphere covered in images of plants and animals. The bandmates exited while “What a Wonderful World” played.
No question, it was the best concert I ever attended. While it was a bit costly, the experience was totally unique. U2 will perform at the Sphere until March 2, 2024, although there are rumors of extending that for a few more shows. After that, Phish is scheduled to play in April 2024. Other bands rumored to be planning shows there include Harry Styles, The Eagles, and Beyonce.
And if you want to experience the Sphere without a musical act, Darren Aronofsky’s Postcards from Earth is a multi-sensory tour through the most eye-popping space on the planet.
Photo: The Sphere in Las Vegas ( Harold Litwile via Wikimedia Commons)