U2 at the Sphere, Las Vegas - review

U2 at the Sphere, Las Vegas - review

As U2 come to the end of their residency at The Sphere, Las Vegas, Tony Clayton-Lea casts a critical eye on the show, the venue, the band, and what might come next.

The Background

U2 commenced their residency (or “venue launch,” clarified guitarist, the Edge) at The Sphere, the Las Vegas-based bespoke venue with a capacity of 18,000 on Friday, September 29, 2023. Moving to Las Vegas for an extended series of shows was initially viewed with some scepticism that revolved around the word ‘residency’. Didn’t worn out heritage showbiz acts play residencies in Las Vegas hotel venues, making easy money from nostalgists, die-hard fans, and visiting tourists amidst the ping-ping-ping of the gambling machines? Had U2 lost the plot? And what on earth was so special about The Sphere? Read on…

The Sphere, Las Vegas, Nevada (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

The Sphere

167,000 loudspeakers. 16K resolution wraparound interior LED screens. 4D physical effects. Beam-forming and wave-field synthesis technologies. An exterior featuring 580,000 sq ft of LED displays. All of this can be yours for $2.3 billion, making it (to date) the most expensive entertainment venue built in Las Vegas. Music industry insiders and audiences alike are calling the Sphere the future of live entertainment, and you can see why. That said, only very successful music acts with already proven visually arresting stage shows could draw the crowds for extended runs and utilise the interior in similar U2-like fashion. So, yes, we’re talking about the likes of Beyoncé, Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and a few others.

The Music

Due to Covid 19, the band’s projected world tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of their 1991 album, Achtung Baby, had to be shelved (or side-lined). Long-term U2 fans will know that the 1992 Zoo TV tour for that album (and its 1993 follow-up, Zooropa) was at the time the most technologically advanced for any rock band. Use of satellites, video screens, design elements aligned with themes of media saturation, and an atmosphere of sensory overload pre-dated the relentlessness of the Internet by several years. The residency at The Sphere would pay tribute to those themes, with all of the songs from Achtung Baby at the centre. In order to offset residency boredom, U2 cut the album track listing in half, playing a mid-section of about four tracks from another of their albums, and using the encore to play a mini set of Greatest Hits (including Where the Streets Have No Name, With or Without You, Beautiful Day, and Vertigo).

The Band

The last time U2 played live before the pandemic hit the world was December 2019 (as part of their Joshua Tree anniversary tour), so you might have thought some creaky hinges needed to be oiled. Not so. While Larry Mullen Jr was absent due to pre-scheduled surgery and post-op recuperation, his replacement (Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg) filled in to solid, thumping effect. Inevitably, all eyes were on Adam Clayton, the Edge, and Bono, and it is perhaps comforting to know that, yes, they look like very well turned out men in their 60s. Clayton and the Edge, however, are but statues compared to the focal point of Bono, with each guitarist standing, playing, and throwing subtle shapes to the music. Bono isn’t necessarily all over the stage, either. As befits a man of his age (he is 64 years of age in May), the swoops and swerves of 30 years ago (and we remember the shapes he threw during the Zoo TV tour) are decidedly reduced. The voice, however, has developed with age, and what was once breathlessly delivered is now toned and calibrated. Bono’s on-stage monologues, once the subject of derision for their occasional pomposity, have also changed and are no longer endurance tests but rather brief Post-It notes that make sense with their messages of selflessness, humanity, and faith. He will, no doubt, continue to receive no small amount of stick for these mini missives, but his advancing years provide a level of gravitas that seemed pretentious when he was much younger. Also, as a musical unit, U2 still makes sense and still deliver. Whether or not their next album will strike lightning in the same way as previous albums, however, is open to debate.

The Visuals

Since their ground-breaking Zoo TV tour, U2 have apparently, made a pact with themselves to present as visually striking and eye-popping a stage show as possible. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the visual elements presented here are by far the most inventive I have ever witnessed at a major rock concert — or, for that matter, any concert or stage show. Developed in collaboration with artist/stage designer Esmerelda Devlin and Ric Lipson of the architectural company Stufish (and several other think-tank personnel), the show is heavily dependent on sublimely creative video placement. Described by U2’s long-time production designer Willie Williams who has worked with the band since 1983, as “the biggest art project in the history of our species whilst running a three-legged obstacle course”, the visual aspects arrive in three sections: a 21st century advancement of Zoo TV (eye-blitzing imagery that has to be seen to be believed), an almost-monochrome mid-section that focuses on the band, and a final section of profound cinematic imagery that interconnects thematically with the sometimes incompatible relationships between consumerism, community, climate change, and the currency of (without any sense of self-importance) being human. Is it astonishing? Yes, it genuinely is.

What’s next?

U2’s ‘residency’ ends on Saturday, March 2, with a tally of 40 shows. The band, however, have an option to continue performing at the Sphere for a further two years, but whether or not this will happen is anyone’s guess. It certainly makes financial sense, but you get a firm sense that enough is enough – for the moment, at least. U2 are currently recording songs for a new album, although what that will be like is also unconfirmed. So far, only two tracks have been heard: Atomic City (easily one of the most mediocre songs that U2 have released) and Glorify (a gospel-ish tune, featuring vocals by US singer Brittany Howard, that has been played as the outro song when the band leave the stage). Only those in U2’s inner circle are clued in as to what might happen next, and as the Zoo TV segment here is only too readily hyper-quick to inform you: everything you know is wrong.