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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

U2's Sphere show prophesizes the end of the world... and it's beautiful


U2’s Zoo TV Tour in 1992-93–or more specifically, Bono’s alter-ego characters–fulfilled many prophecies:

MacPhisto left behind video cameras for each of us (we got them about 15 years later in the form of our phones).

The Fly taught us how to make selfies.

The Mirrorball Man showed us the way toward his vision, the destination being “Las Vegas! I’ve been there. I know that it exists!”

I’ve been there, too, and of course it exists, but at the moment, U2 are a big part of the landscape. Bono said Mirrorball Man and MacPhisto are like manifestations of the Fly character thirty years later, now playing Vegas. Was that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are U2 now a residency act? Technically yes, but their current U2:UV show (a tribute to Achtung Baby), which is opening the groundbreaking venue The Sphere, has more riding on it than just mom and dad’s nostalgia band trying to cash in as they approach their twilight years. Then again, as is often the case, a lot of the relevancy of this tour will depend on what U2 do next. Is this show worth taking on the road without the specifics the Sphere has to offer? Or can they finally move on from these anniversary album tours and produce something new and vital again?

Having seen two performances (one in the stands, one in the GA floor), it’s hard to imagine the “wow factor” of the venue being replicated in any way, shape or form in, say, the United Center or even any stadium. It just can’t work anywhere else in terms of spectacle. Let’s face it, many people who are turning up at this show are not doing so because they love U2’s 1991 enduring masterpiece. Many are turning up so they can say they’ve been inside the venue. They’ve seen it, they know that it exists, and they have the footage on their phones to prove it (sidenote: Nobody’s phone footage can do any of it any real justice. If you're not there, you’re not seeing it or feeling it). It could’ve been any artist and many of the same people would’ve shown up. Having said that, thousands of U2 fans are making the trek to Vegas for much the same reason.

So, that just leaves the show itself. On its own, without the grandiosity of the venue and its flawless sound (and I do mean flawless), how does this show compare to previous U2 tours since 1992? I would say it’s still taking shape as a concept. Bono says to the audience “this show is about love versus luck,“ very aware of the Vegas setting, while also indulging in their fascination with Elvis by citing his music and imagery throughout the show. But there's also a biblical element that comes through in the final act of the piece, referencing Noah’s Ark (here called Nevada's Ark, according to the tour program). I don’t know that all these themes hold together in the end, but it’s still early in the run and U2:UV will likely be tweaked as it goes along.

Using Achtung Baby as the starting point around which all the other songs must exist certainly has its challenges. The album’s themes of reunification in Europe, a couple’s break-up, sexuality, the darkness that exists in all our hearts in the wee hours of the night that we rarely ever face… how can U2 possibly take those themes and turn it into a Vegas-style showstopper that will leave the casual fans feeling like the Ticketmaster convenience fees and second-tier ticket broker upcharges were worth the effort? The answer is, don’t even try, but luckily the album is dense with subject matter that there are other, more subtle themes that can also be explored to their potential.

As with Zoo TV, the band frontloads the show with nothing but the Greatest Hits from that album, leaving the lesser known songs for a block later in the show, then concluding (just as they did with the Joshua Tree 2017 tour) with a block of old standbys. They are smart to approach it this way from a business standpoint and as a way of making sure positive word-of-mouth stays positive. U2 are, for the most part, starting from scratch in the visual sense, employing visual artists who have their own interpretation of what these songs could look like. One has to give them credit for never leaning too hard into the album’s visual iconography for screen content, save for the direct reference to Zoo TV during “The Fly,” which sticks to the assault of subliminal messages from the Zoo TV tour, giving the white blocked letters a nice neon facelift while also creating the most thrilling 3-D effect in the entire show.

Using the shape of the Sphere as their starting point, the artists deliver some of the most majestic and dizzying imagery ever to be seen in a rock show, at some points making the audience feel like the entire structure surrounding them is moving. “The Fly,” “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and later in the show, “With Or Without You,” are the stand-outs for me. There is also lovely creepiness to “Love Is Blindness,” in which a soft, calming blue light drapes all over the entire space, only to be slowly engulfed by silhouettes of butterflies, ants and flies until there is very little blue left. What a way to close out the main set. It feels like the end of the world, in a way. Why not make the whole screen go black? More on that in a moment.

There are also ominous helicopters that make their presence known at the very top of the show (you gotta be quick to catch it) and at the end, while the stage itself has four light structures that look like futuristic tools of an oppressive government spying on its citizens. These light fixtures do their own shadowplay at one point, swaying to “So Cruel,” no doubt a major high point for a lot of us die-hard fans who have been clamoring to hear that song played live. The turntable-style stage also provides its own show for the people in the stands who can see it change colors throughout the show, while also being used as video reinforcement.

We also come to learn at one point that this seemingly solid video wall—IMAX on steroids is the shorthand I’ve been using—isn’t solid at all. I don’t know how it’s done, but at one point, Bono walks wistfully around the stage with a long rope that is meant to be tied to a balloon. The balloon on the screen is obviously digital. The rope is real and extends from out of the top of the screen. On the 10/7 show, Bono invited a woman on stage to walk with him, just as he did during this song (“Trying To Throw Your Arms Around the World”) on the ZooTV tour. The woman then sat in the loop of this rope and proceeded to swing over the audience. The next night, nobody was brought up on stage and Bono looked like he didn’t know what to do with no guest joining him (he also needs a B-stage). One suspects he got a slap on the wrist from an insurance person. They will have to think of another way to keep that necessary bit of spontaneity in the show alive.

Although, spontaneity does have its place here. On 10/7, as Bono introduced members of the band, he eventually got around to stand-in drummer Bram van den Berg, who is doing a phenomenal job filling in for the ailing Larry Mullen Jr. Bono asked him what made Bram, a student of Larry’s, into a professor? Bram, not one to take the mic, simply answered with a drum riff from “Pride (In the Mane of Love).” “Oh, I see,” Bono said. “Is this your way of telling us you want to do ‘Pride’?” Sure enough, they gave it a go, stumbling gracefully through a version that seemed to mix all different versions of the song into one piece. It was the first time on this show that the song had been played. The following night, they played it again, a little more polished, this time dedicating it to the people of Israel. This portion of the show, the stripped-down portion, has the most room for moments like these.

The final portion of the show, coming in after bugs of all kinds have engulfed the screen leaving only patches of blue, recalls an image during “Until the End of the World,” that of a burning flag standing in a flood with lightning flashing all around it during Edge’s iconic outro. Imagery of flooding remains a dominant fixture in the visuals as the show becomes more and more about our demise due to the climate crisis.

The flag returns in a desert setting during the encore set for “Where the Streets Have No Name.” This time, the fire is out and smoke flows in the same stripey pattern the fire had, signaling the world has ended, we’re all gone and now the streets have no names. This comes after the band lets loose on their new single “Atomic City,” in which we see Las Vegas being stripped away in time-lapse, leaving nothing but dry land. Later, during “With Or Without You” (with or without us?), a Noah’s Ark in the form of a spherical orb opens up and lets loose thousands of animals, insects and birds. The end of the world never looked so beautiful, which could explain why they end with one of their mainstays, “Beautiful Day” (the lyric “after the flood, all the colors came out” gets repeated a few times).

So, a throughline does exist here even if it gets a little muddled in the overall presentation. As every fan who follows their work closely knows, though, these shows sometimes take time to evolve and find their artistic footing. As such, taking U2 UV on the road and trying to rework it as a stadium or arena tour wouldn’t work. The excesses of Las Vegas becomes part of the cautionary tale of the show’s vision in the latter half. It wouldn’t have the same effect if it were, say, Portland. Then again, like a movie, a U2 show doesn't always reveal itself upon first or second viewing. Ideas become clearer over time, possibly through multiple viewings and other people's perspectives.

It has been reported that they could extend their residency for another two years if they want. I would rather they embark on a brand new project again instead of another anniversary tour (the anniversary ran out, anyway). As of now, the show exists for the Sphere and most fans, while satisfied with the show they saw and just being grateful to see U2 again in any capacity, aren’t exactly clamoring for the chance to fly out to Vegas again anytime soon.

If U2 were to extend their residency with this show for a couple more years instead of forging ahead on something fresh, then the Zoo TV prophecies might actually be fulfilled in ways they never expected. Remember when some critics and onlookers thought the media overload of the stage design from 1992-93 threatened to overwhelm the four men on stage? Thirty years later, in Las Vegas, the same could be said again. Now, let’s see if it does overwhelm them in other ways as well. Here’s hoping the Vegas sun doesn’t melt their wings.

The Sphere Experience

The building itself is wondrous, but don’t expect the full experience in one visit. I just found out that the A.I. robots that had been written about are not in use for the U2 shows, but for Darren Aranofsky’s 50-minute documentary “Postcards From Earth,” which only plays on non-show days. I didn’t get to see it, though I wish I could have. The only robot I got to see was Gort from “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” Nothing wrong with that, but it’s simply just there to look at.

The interiors were bathed in a deep blue light, with an Achtung Baby ambient music track that all of us fans had been hearing all weekend at the Zoo Station Experience. This 20-minute loop is like a Brian Eno-esque soundscape that features random guitar riffs from the album along with a few of Bono’s recognizable chants. It compliments the futuristic vibe of this place nicely.

The staff all around were gracious, kind, helpful, enthusiastic and eager to please. No complaints there. I also loved the self-serve drink area where one can pull an ice cold beverage from the fridge and do a self-checkout without having to scan any barcodes. Just place the item on the scanner and the computer somehow knows exactly what you have. Simple, hassle-free, hardly any wait time.

I had heard horror stories about getting in and out of the space before and after the show, but I had no such experience. Whatever happened those first few nights had been fixed, because getting in and out of the venue was a smooth sail. I also love that some staff members cheer you on as you leave. I cheered back at them and told them they were “killing it.”

Now, while I do praise the staff on their customer service skills, they are put in a rather delicate and unenviable position of having to tell enthusiastic U2 fans to not stand in the unusually steep 300 and 400 sections of the theater. Having sat in the 200s section myself, I can say that standing up in that space can be dizzying. I was in a less-steep place and I still felt like I had to hang onto my seat while standing. I was grateful for having a GA ticket the following night where I can stand and jump and dance my heart out. I also felt grateful for not having spent $1,000+ on tickets in the 100 section where there is an obstructed view of the screen, a blunder for which the Sphere employees' patience for pissed off customers will be tested in the coming weeks and months. It must be said, though, that there are also obstructed view seats in the very back row of the 200 sections, with speaker systems hovering over the seats. The people behind us had to stand in the aisle to view the full spectacle.

There have always been pluses and minuses between the stands and the GA. People like their saved seats and some people flat-out need them. I prefer the freedom of the GA, but that has its drawbacks as well. You never know who's going to be in here causing problems and it doesn't help that there is a waitstaff constantly milling about serving drinks to people who don't need more drinks. And I won't get into the GA "line drama" that exists days before any U2 show. I don't usually participate. I show up in the evening of the show and find a spot that I like. If I don't like it, I eventually move.

As for the show itself, it's no less stunning down below as it is up high, though a couple of the 3-D effects don't land as well in the GA pit. I'd say take whatever ticket you can get, but keep in mind all these caveats before clicking the Purchase button.

Zoo Station Experience

Knowing that this residency would bring U2 fans from all over the world, the band have given fans an extra incentive to make the journey. Located in the Venetian, the Zoo Station is an interactive playground, bar, cinema, photo gallery and shop. You can have your picture taken in a Trabant, singing on the B-stage and/or in a photobooth.

Expect long lines for all these things come show day. I had a fan club membership advantage whereby my wife and I could arrive an hour early and have first crack at everything before the general public showed up, but there were still lines of other U2[dot]com members as well. Hell, most of the Las Vegas experience is waiting in line, so why should this be any different? Point is, it’s a worthwhile lot of fun.

The U2 Pop-Up Shop is loaded with t-shirts, hoodies, hats, vinyl, posters, Funko Pops and stickers. I left empty-handed and a bit disappointed because they were out of large-sized shirts and hoodies I wanted. They had small and extra-large sizes in abundance. That was true both days and the merch they have differs from what the Sphere has.

On the second floor is the Cinema and Fly Bar, where you can indulge in a U2-themed drink for $20 (pro-tip: The Hard Rock Cafe also had U2-themed drinks for half the price and are a little tastier).

The Cinema screens four blocks of videos a day. Again, on show days, the afternoon shows sell out quickly. We decided to screen “A Year In Pop,” the notoriously low-rated ABC special that aired the weekend of the opening of the PopMart Tour, with Dennis Hopper providing some comically bad narration (“Bad craziness!”). Since they blocked out a 90-minute slot for it, I thought we would be getting the international version that I’ve never seen before. Instead, they showed the “Atomic City” video (okay, makes sense), only to have it cut off thirty seconds early. “A Year In Pop” started and, sure enough, it was the American Dennis Hopper version, but then that got cut off half-waly through with a documentary “The Story of One” (which can be found on the “Best of 1990 - 2000” DVD). After that, they showed the Vertigo Tour documentary “Beyond The Tour.” I’m not sure if this happens with every screening, but I kinda wanted to at least see “The Year In Pop” play through. I mean, that's what I paid for, right?

Anyway, we did have fun doing a virtual spray-paint job on the Trabant in the Fly Bar. I thought my wife and I did a good job for something that isn’t easy to do.

The Overall Vegas Experience

We met a lot of people like us who flew in for the weekend and had to leave Monday morning. The U2 audience this time around might be the most international mix they’ll ever have. We all know that they’re not going to come to us; we have to go to them. It’s wonderful to know that the U2 fanbase remains strong, even if (in Chicago anyway) I rarely ever see anyone these days walking around in a U2 t-shirt. In Las Vegas, people in U2 shirts are everywhere, as are MacPhistos and Mirrorball Men and Women. While the city itself, for any first-timer, will be an overwhelming experience that requires strong walking shoes, you’re never far from another fan to talk to and making connections is what U2 has always been about.

I’m so happy to be home, but I’m also glad I went (even though I got sick with a cold in the process). I just don’t want to look at my bank statement anytime soon.

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