Achtung Vegas: The Inside Story of U2 at the Sphere

Within a giant, $2.3BN ball in the Nevada desert, U2 reinvent the rock concert, again. Is this the end of the world tour as we knew it, or even better than the real thing?

Surrender collection. And a finale that romps through a brace of U2’s most anthemic ol’ faithfuls (“Elevation”, “Vertigo”, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “With Or Without You”). All this performed in a freshly opened, sphere-shaped concert hall.

There the simplicity must end. This is a show underpinned by contributions from visual and conceptual artists (Eno, Es Devlin, Jenny Holzer, John Gerrard, Marco Brambilla, Industrial Light & Magic). Amplified by concert technology of unprecedented scale and innovation (160,000 speakers and a 160,000sq ft wraparound LED display with world-best, 16k-by-16k picture resolution). Bristling with messaging (excess, consumerism, the American Dream, species extinction). Supersized by a building that can seemingly dissolve its own walls so punters feel as if they’re hovering above the city or plonked in the desert. And philosophically fired by a mission to create an immersive gig experience like no other.

Sphere, by some estimations the biggest spherical structure on earth, is even more grandiose on the outside. Its 580,000sq ft exterior LED display is constantly shifting and winking into the Nevada sky, variously displaying an eyeball, an emoji, blooms of jellyfish — and, inevitably, advertising. It’s as if U2 and Sphere mastermind James Dolan, the billionaire owner of Madison Square Garden and a host of sports franchises, are declaring with chest-puffing pomp: look on our stuff, ye Coldplay, and despair!

because the technology is new… Delivering a half-petabyte movie — that’s 500,000 gigabytes — that utilises more than 160,000 speakers is mind-boggling.” Just to ensure those bums on seats, Sphere will also bump those bums out of their seats: at appropriate moments in the film, haptics will make your perch vibrate, wobble and clunk.

This new venue, then, is aggressively conceptualised to assail all the senses. We should expect no less from the big-swinging but divisive Dolan — “one mad bastard”, Bono calls him, approvingly, from Sphere’s stage, a sentiment with which those sports fans barred from the Garden for criticising his ownership of their teams would undoubtedly agree. Although even U2 have to draw the line somewhere. “They can [pump] aromas and things like that in[to] the building,” says Williams, who has overseen every U2 show since 1982/3’s tour in support of third album War. “But I wouldn’t give that idea to a bunch of Irish guys.”

All of which begs the questions: how? Why? Really? And does U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere mean curtains for the world tour as we know it?

“To be candid,” begins bass player Adam Clayton, “we know that four guys playing instruments on their own after 50 or 60 years of rock’n’roll is not really as exciting as it used to be. You know, we serve the music. And we were interested in imagery that made the music bigger, or made the music more effective.”

When U2 come to Las Vegas determined to reimagine what a rock show could be, we’re inevitably a long way from Sinatra at the Sands. We’re even a long way from Calvin Harris’s blockbuster five-year residency with Hakkasan Group, a peak electronic-dance-music payday in which the DJ reupped the deal midway through for a reported £200m. That, after all, was just a tall Scottish bloke standing and playing records.

what Bono described Achtung Baby as doing to the studio album that preceded it: “The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” Even though the singer now admits, in U2:UV’s coffee-table tour-programme, that he said that “because it was a mouthy, headline-grabbing singer thing to say,” the band agreed the idea was worth exploring.

As Clayton puts it: “What was interesting about that was, after 50 years of entertainment and concert revenues being generated, finally someone said: ‘Let’s make a building where music sounds good. Where we’re not in a sports arena that isn’t designed for music.’”

Not everyone in Team U2 was immediately sold on the idea. When Williams heard, 18 months ago, about the idea of U2 performing at a long-delayed, over-budget, as-yet-incomplete, as-yet-unproven new concept for a venue in Las Vegas, he thought: bad idea, bad location.

all 33 of his films, and assorted pops of Las Vegas iconography — the better to get over the idea, says the artist, that “both Elvis and Vegas were metaphors for the epic trajectory of the American Dream”.

Recalling his commission conversation — which happened as recently as this spring — Brambilla says the band told him “this song, to us, represents maximalism and spectacle. We want [the video piece] to be hyper-realistic and dense and take full advantage of the size of Sphere.”

species of London”. Bono saw that show, rang her up and said: “Why don’t you do that for the species of Nevada?”

So, she tells me, “the whole Sphere gets filled with these [likenesses] of stone carvings”. In fact, the Crescent Dunes Serican Scarab beetle, Ash Springs Riffle beetle, Devils Hole pupfish, Sand Mountain blue butterfly and 22 other extinction-threatened species have been lovingly crafted out of pixels. “It’s like looking up in the Alhambra, into this cathedral. Then when you come out of the building, they’re all over the outside, too.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. Devlin’s at-risk animal house, carpeting the dome’s vaulting interior, is an astonishing, breathtaking end-point for U2:UV — a powerful moment of celebration and reflection as, appropriately enough, the final song “Beautiful Day” fades away.

All things considered, as gigs go, it’s even better than the real thing.

There is plenty more to come as Vegas doubles down on maximalist entertainment. In November, the Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit makes a desert pit-stop, with the track roaring through Sphere’s parking lot. U2’s show — launched by the band with a punky new song, “Atomic City”, named after the town’s nickname in the good old days of nearby nuclear tests — is running all the way to the week before Christmas. There it overlaps with, and hands over the bombastic baton to, the 50,000sq ft LIV Nightclub at The Fontainebleau, scheduled to open on 13 December. It’s a “vertically integrated” resort with 67 storeys, 3,644 guest rooms, 36 restaurants and bars, and a casino with 42ft-high ceilings. It’s taken even longer to imagineer (ground was broken on construction in 2007) and cost even more ($3.7bn) than Sphere.

Meanwhile, that traditional benchmark of Vegas performance, the casino residency, continues to pull in high-rollers and low-rollers alike. Usher has been packing them in since April at Park MGM. Weekends with Adele at Caesars Palace’s Colosseum theatre has been running for a year, finally sobbing to a close in November. There’s another handover that weekend: the night before Adele ends, Kylie launches her residency at The Venetian, christening the resort’s next new venue, Voltaire. A bijou, 1,000-capacity spot, it will apparently lead a “revival in high-calibre nightlife”.

But right now, Sin City belongs to U2. Going by my experience of opening night, and by most of the reviews, the show fulfils the lofty goals of everyone involved. Like ABBA Voyage, it’s a whole new kind of gig experience. If you build it, they will come — and the live music industry will need to pay heed. After all, as Clayton says: “The days of a bunch of hairy guys standing up there and playing rock’n’roll are probably limited. We live in a world where the young and the beautiful dominate. Because it’s all about the image.”

Devlin, certainly, sees the need for change, and not just from the point of view of the carbon footprint of hauling a huge production country to country — Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour-credits list 80 truck drivers, their artics melting the Arctic.

“If you think how long opera or theatre have had to evolve as mediums, this is a young art form,” she says. “The distance between the first [big] pop concert, which you might argue was the Shea Stadium debacle, where The Beatles could barely be seen or heard, and were practically mobbed by the size of the audience, is only 60 years,” Devlin adds. It’s a comparison Bono also makes from the stage: “I’m thinking the Sphere may have come into existence trying to solve the problem The Beatles started at Shea Stadium in 1965. Nobody could hear you and you couldn’t hear yourselves.”

So: does the advent of U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere — a band, parking themselves in one place for months, leaving no performance element to chance — mean the beginning of the end for the traditional world tour?

“I doubt it. I cannot imagine how anybody else will ever be able to play in this building,” says Willie Williams, although Jim “Mad Bastard” Dolan is on record as saying he has the next two acts booked (“big names”, apparently). “Because U2 spent 18 months [conceptualising], and we’ve had two months in the building. Now, admittedly, the building was still being built! But creating for this space is so bespoke. The commitment required, creative, intellectual, financial… I find it very hard to imagine how anybody else could play here.”

Devlin concurs about the defiant viability of touring, albeit for different reasons. For one thing, she understands that flying into Vegas to see a favourite artist is beyond the financial reach of most fans. For another, artists themselves want to be out in, and of, the world. Having worked on The Weeknd’s current After Hours Til Dawn stadium trek, each night she watched Abel Tesfaye “finding people in the crowd with a very specific energy, and responding to that energy, then going to the other end of the stadium and becoming a conduit for one group of humans’ energy over to the other side. That will continue.”

Equally, too, what Williams calls the “kinetic energy” of touring is crucial for artists. I ask Adam Clayton about that. Does his band’s necessarily precision-drilled new show allow for momentum and looseness? In their cavernous ball-pit, is there still room for U2 to, in every sense, play?

“I hope so!” the musician answers, laughing. “Or I’m going home!” ○

U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere, Las Vegas, runs until 16 December.

By Craig McLean

The following two tabs change content below.

Leave a Reply