U2 has arrived at the Atomic City with a blast. The opening night of the band’s ‘residency’ at Las Vegas’ new Sphere has been months in preparation the synthesis of some of the finest minds in contemporary staging and multimedia art, as well as an in-house team honed by decades of experience working for the band.
This two-hour show is nothing short of remarkable, achieving the near-impossible task of engaging with the long-established world of Vegas showmanship along with the esoteric, avant-garde and subversive stylings of individual artists, all wrapped up in the dazzling technological sophistication of the Sphere.
U2 in Las Vegas, opening night
The show, which splices well-loved tracks from 1991’s Achtung Baby with a scattering of bona fide classics, as well as a more meditative acoustic section, manages to be both bombastic and intimate. For the diehard U2 fans – thousands of whom were in attendance on opening night – setlists and running order matter less than simple attendance at Bono’s masterfully managed altar.
Yet there’s plenty to admire for even the casual Las Vegas show-goer, starting with the voluminous capacity of the venue itself. Rumoured to cost around $2bn, and the brainchild of Jim L Dolan of the Madison Square Garden Sports Corp, the Sphere is, as yet, unrivalled for the fidelity of its audio-visual presentation. What you need to make it really sing, however, is U2’s level of artistic vision.
The band’s collaborators are used to making grand gestures – this is, after all, music that evokes big skies and big emotions. Over a series of increasingly grandiose live statements dating all the way back to the late 1980s, U2 have helped create the template for the modern stadium rock show. U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere moves the needle yet again.
When we spoke to Willie Williams, Es Devlin and Adam Clayton about the origins and evolution of the show’s staging, it was without the benefit of seeing anything other than stills. The team can be justifiably proud of the way they tackled a technological unknown and gave all systems a proper workout, without compromising the intimacy and emotion generated by hearing a well-loved song in amongst a huge audience.
Bono is a masterful frontman, happy with the occasional musical adlib, and effusive in his praise for his fellow musicians – The Edge on guitar and keyboards, Adam Clayton on bass, and Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg deputising for original U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. The last is sitting this residency out after recovering from surgery, making this evening the first time the band have played without him in 45 years. Bono also gives a shout-out to the artists involved, as well as an invited audience of U2-related top brass and plenty of other entertainment industry luminaries, Sir Paul McCartney, Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg among them.
Highlights? There are many. Marco Brambilla’s shimmering cascade of cultural memories that backdrops ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’, the neo-Holzer typographic bombardment and tumbling numbers that accompany ‘The Fly’, the magnificent use of John Gerrard’s epic series of ‘flags’, or the self-disassembling Vegas skyline that has been conjured up by Industrial Light and Magic to the soundtrack of new single, ‘Atomic City’.
Willie Williams told us that he’d had concerns about dealing with the scale, noting that ‘it’s actually quite fatiguing taking in an image that big’, and respite is provided by the semi-acoustic middle section, which the band promise will showcase an ever-changing setlist of songs throughout the concert’s run. This is where Brian Eno’s giant turntable comes into its own, subtly shifting in colour in accordance with the music. The big screen is toned down in this section, used only to magnify the performers for the benefit of those on the top tier of the massive egg-shaped auditorium.
The show opener, Achtung Baby’s first track, ‘Zoo Nation’, transformed the venue from a towering concrete-lined temple into a vast patchwork of imagery. Es Devlin told us that this was a deliberate way of distracting the audience from what’s to come. ‘The materiality is what’s interesting, something that’s not as mutable as pixels,’ she said.
Devlin’s ‘Nevada Ark’ forms the backdrops to the final clutch of songs, ‘Where the Streets have no name’, ‘With or Without You’, and ‘Beautiful Day’, as a massive sphere within a sphere looms over the audience before swinging around to reveal a kaleidoscopic panorama of creatures, feathered, finned and furred, a sight replicated on the Sphere’s exterior surface as the audience files out at the end.
Is this the beginning of a new arms race in entertainment technology? Las Vegas is a fitting location for something as expensive and outrageous as the Sphere but the way the venue demands a monumental approach to staging just won’t suit every artist. Cast your eyes up and down the strip and you’ll see plenty of acts, old and new, bringing a bit of Sin City sizzle to their careers – currently in town are Adele, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rod Stewart and many others. U2 were one of the originators of the modern stadium rock show; at Sphere, they’ve taken it to another level.
Receive our daily digest of inspiration, escapism and design stories from around the world direct to your inbox
Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.
This year’s finest Christmas baubles for fashion fans
The most stylish Christmas baubles and ornaments of the 2023 season to accessorise your tree, from Prada, Hermès, Dior and more
By Jack Moss Published
Is the Audemars Piguet and Travis Scott Royal Oak the collaboration of the year?
The new Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar from Audemars Piguet and Travis Scott comes in a delicious chocolate ceramic
By Thor Svaboe Published
Bless interprets Fendi’s world for its immersive Design Miami 2023 installation
Provocative situation design duo Bless go behind the scenes at Fendi for ‘Backfrontal’, the Italian fashion house’s presentation at Design Miami 2023 (6-10 December)
By Dal Chodha Published