We know every bar eventually gets raised, but it may be a while before that happens again, in this case.
Sphere opened September 29 with a fanfare perhaps unmatched in recent times. There is no question the venue’s incredible technology risks overwhelming any show presented, but if there is one band that could hope to keep up, it’s probably U2. Themselves a band that likes to push the edge of the technology envelope, and who made video a major part of their performances 30 years ago, U2 opened Sphere with aplomb, but not necessarily full-bore success. Not yet, anyway. They still have a lot of shows left in their Las Vegas residency, a lot of nights to hang out afterwards with Wayne Newton!
No single data point wholly captures what Sphere represents. A few begin to explain the scope of the venue: It cost $2.3 billion to build, more than any other entertainment venue, and frankly, an insane amount of money for a light show and a good sound system for a bunch of old rockers (but this is Vegas, baby); three football fields’ worth of video screens — how precisely that is measured… well, let’s just go with it; and it is an audio system with 160,000 speakers.
But this really caught my eye: In February 2020, the world’s fourth-largest crane was needed to complete the construction. It was sent by sea from Belgium — where they apparently need very large cranes? — to Port Hueneme, California, where it was subsequently hauled by 120 tractor-trailers to Las Vegas.
My view from the plane landing in Las Vegas left no doubt where the evening’s show would be — the massive, 366-foot-high orb is covered with constantly changing video imagery and can be seen for miles across the desert sky. The 1.2 million LED pucks covering its 580,000-square-foot surface provide the first glimpse of the pending sensory overload inside. The view from ground level approaching Sphere is equally eerie and compelling.
Entering the sprawling Venetian Resort complex, even in a quiet corner (if there is such a thing) the vague echoes of U2 tracks waft through the clanging casino and in the vast walkway to Sphere. This seems unnecessarily cruel. It turns out during the remastering of the band’s catalog — stems were made available for the ambient sound coursing through the entire casino complex. Brian Eno’s Music For Airports was certainly the catalyst.
On offer to all comers is a no-charge, interactive installation celebrating U2’s time in Berlin before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Far from being a museum of static artifacts, the various activities put you in the middle of the buzz. According to Harvey Cohen of Vibee (the Live Nation experience company), over 15,000 folks visited during the opening weekend.
As one passes through security and enters the overwhelming dome that is Sphere, the pervasive U2 audio ambience is accentuated. The vast sleek interior architecture might be the airport (or spaceport) of the future.
Once seated (or standing, for those in the GA section surrounding three quarters of the stage) there are no hard edges, other than those related to the tiers of seats and the very simple stage, which is sparse and a welcome respite from the masses of amplifier and sound monitors now de rigueur in a large concert setting. The stage evokes a turntable, which reflects a focus on the once-omnipresent vinyl LP.
Once U2 was underway, there was no question about where the construction money went. The sound was fantastic. The video presentation was truly incomparable. It is doubtful any venue on this planet can match either aspect.
The anticipation of the crowd overcame some trepidation emanating from the band; the four lads seemed a bit uneven, almost by their own admission.
Wisely not leveraging the scope of the audio screen until several songs into the evening, the band was able to focus attention on its melodies and earnest lyrics. But by the time of “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” the audiences’ jaws dropped as eyes raised to look heavenward at the incredibly crisp and nearly 270-degree video array.
Bono has referred to Sphere as a temple for the arts, which is certainly accurate in that everywhere else the band has played since leaving the club scene, the venues were primarily for sports. As to who might play at Sphere after the current U2 residency ends before Christmas, there are rumors that the band will return in 2024. It’s hard to get U2 to go away. Just saying.
To bring the whole shebang across the finish line, the dome became filled with images of the various endangered species in the nearby desert. That seemed both incongruous and a bit of overkill (no pun intended). Of course the energy expended in constructing and putting on just one show probably did not do much in terms of restoring any species to the area, nor will it win any sustainability awards, but such is the conundrum of Las Vegas and, by extension, U2 or anyone else who plays there.