February 2024

Arts & Letters

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

By Elmo Keep

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere. © Daniel Boud

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

In all of existence there are no perfect spheres. Not in nature, not in subatomic particles. Not in celestial objects, maybe not even black holes. Certainly not in anything made by human hands. Physics dictates that it is impossible. Information breaks down at the molecular level, rendering even an electron an imperfect sphere – 0.000000000000000000000000001 of a centimetre off. These are fundamental laws of matter that few of us can understand.

In the quiet, space-age, LED-lit lobby of Sphere, Las Vegas, people are wandering, gazing at giant hanging light features that slowly cycle through a calming blue colour scheme. In the distance, people ride glowing escalators up to their seats at a pace set to dreamy, making you feel as if you have entered some kind of starship. The equations used to design and build it are etched barely visible into the black walls. They include the finite element method, geodesic maths, the law of sines and Snell’s law, which all circle back to pi: the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter.

Much has been made of Sphere’s technical feats in the pursuit of creating the most immersive entertainment venue ever built: that its exterior comprising 54,000 square metres of programmable LED panels is capable of showing 256 million colours; that it is 112 metres high and 157 metres wide. The interior screen takes up 15,000 square metres, with a 16K resolution, curving around the auditorium’s 18,600 seats. Its sound system is made of ​​1586 loudspeaker modules (plus 300 mobile modules) and 167,000 speaker drivers. It is a vertiginous audio and visual experience that envelopes you at every inch, which has caused some people to pass out within it. It is the purest distillation of “experiential design” by which we may all be entertained to death.

All of which is before you’ve even done any drugs.

I’m ready for the shuffle / ready for the deal / ready to let go of the steering wheel
(“Zoo Station”)

When you’re driving on the I-15 at sunset, the beauty of the sun sinking gold against the thousands of windows of the most concentrated number of casinos on Earth is enough to make you slam the brakes to avoid a collision with the car in front. Sphere sits among this, oddly iridescent, glowing an artificial blue,
a giant marble on the horizon nestled improbably among the towers. As if God might one day get sick of the city and reach down to flick the orb with giant angry fingers, knocking it into the buildings.

You awaken in Las Vegas mid morning to people blearily shuffling through the casino floors with oversized beers and foot-tall margaritas and judge them degenerate, but one day later it’s you. Then you’re ambling the Strip at 1am on chemical enhancements that render your disorientation marvellous. Or passing the broad false daylight of the Forum’s fountains, where replica statues of Roman gods and chandeliers made of 70,000 crystals make absolute sense to you. Everything seems perfectly regular and just as it should be, as if you have always been here and only just arrived. Time in Las Vegas is famously meaningless, clocks invisible, even if we all carry smartphones now. Turn them off, put them in airplane mode, leave them in your hotel room – we’re only here to slide down the surface of things.

Back inside the performance space of Sphere, we’re in the Colosseum of ancient Rome, where, if you look above you at just the right time, a white dove appears to be trapped, flitting among the highest reaches of the dome, only to quickly disappear – an Easter egg for those who pay close attention. Then the space suddenly darkens and we are in Berlin, huge concrete slabs crumbling before us with sand falling between their cracks, as U2 grind out the shuddering industrial crunch of “Zoo Station”, bringing the walls smashing down.

And then there is Bono, the last of the rockstars. The screen splits behind him into a giant white cross, displaying his image at its centre at building size, throwing shapes in high definition. In black leather and red rosary beads, he makes a show of slowly putting on his black shades, transforming himself into “The Fly”, the sleazy character he invented on the Zoo TV tour, when he and U2 cast off the earnest look and sound that had made them world famous on The Joshua Tree. The new U2 gave into the libidinous lust that pulsed through their 1991 album, Achtung Baby, which at Sphere is belatedly marking its 30th anniversary, being played from start to finish in a show called U2:UV.

The band stand on a very small platform, the domed continuous screen of Sphere behind them, while they are within each other’s touching distance on a square stage based on a larger version of Brian Eno’s LED turntable. As much as they are playing for us, they are playing for each other, Bono unable to keep a broad smile from creasing his still handsome face. He shamelessly inhabits all the incarnations of Vegas showman: Elvis, wedding chaplain (“Later tonight, we’re all getting married”), magician, lounge entertainer who charms with breezy stage patter. He dons a white suit jacket later in the show to croon a short rendition of Sinatra’s “My Way”, before screaming into the Sid Vicious version, to whom he is sartorially indebted. He looks a million bucks, which you would expect for someone who could gamble a million bucks on roulette and it wouldn’t touch the sides.

The propulsive early tracks of Achtung Baby, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways”, signal that we are here to have a damn good time. The crowd rides waves of electric abandon while the screen displays visuals difficult to describe: at one point mirrored gold and day-glo animations of Las Vegas history falling behind the band create an optical illusion that makes it look as if the stage is endlessly rising. I check with a friend if this is really what’s happening, as in my enhanced condition anything could be; I am assured that this is what everyone else is seeing too. 

It’s impossible as a fan not to revel in Bono’s sheer pleasure in performing. Fit as hell, he nearly never sang again after undergoing open heart surgery several years ago. He wrote with terrifying clarity in his 2022 memoir, Surrender, of how close he came to dying on the operating table, mentally conscious throughout anaesthesia. Today his voice remains one of the most powerful in the history of rock music, holding long high notes and hitting his falsetto. In the sensitive acoustics of Sphere he can also whisper and be heard perfectly, stopping to tell stories now and then about the album that brought them to this place.

That the centre of all this fun, all this communing and joy, is Achtung Baby – the best and most vicious album U2 ever recorded, cataloguing the various woundings of a terrible divorce – is the exact kind of irony that finds its home in Las Vegas, a mecca for contrasting impulses. While sonically thrilling and frequently danceable, the album is phenomenally angry, bitter and vengeful, awash with the anguished hues of sexual jealousy (So you can swallow / or you can spit / You can throw it up / or choke on it, I’m only hanging on to watch you go down / my love…). The divorce was that of guitarist The Edge, with Bono channelling the misery inflicted by the end of his boyhood friend’s relationship. He changes the words of “So Cruel”, an especially mean vivisection of infidelity that lays the blame firmly at the feet of a woman who had many men to love her, none of whom were enough. Rather than “You’re so cruel”, Bono sings “Sweetheart, I’m so cruel”, a mea culpa 30 years too late that acknowledges that in all affairs of the heart there are two people. He cops to this again at the end of the song, saying, “Well, that was always only one side of the story.”

No, nothing makes sense / Nothing seems to fit / I know you’d hit out / if you only knew who to hit

U2 are, much to the chagrin of their legion detractors, one of the more overtly political bands to ever cross a stage while waving a white flag. On the 1992–93 Zoo TV tour, to which these shows play a remixed homage, the band cut to live video footage shot by refugees of the war in Sarajevo, to draw attention to a conflict the world’s media had by then wearied of. The images depicted people begging for their lives, who understandably chastised U2’s audience for indulging in rock’n’roll while they were dodging falling bombs, hiding in bunkers without power or food. It was footage so devastating it nearly derailed every show they played across Europe at the time.

Our personal inability to influence the atrocities of global events in any way is the impotent position in which we are still stuck. Social media gives us the illusion of agency, but, as has always been the case, a handful of extraordinarily powerful actors makes the decisions that affect our lives, from how much petrol costs to who will die in war. The true fantasy under which we labour is the one in which we think we can do anything about it.

Zoo TV presciently predicted how the 24/7 onslaught of information would warp us as political agents, dizzied by overload. Bono strode the stage decked out in black Elvis leathers, carrying an oversized TV remote, flipping through live satellite channels beamed onto giant screens: CNN’s round-the-clock live coverage of the Gulf War, softcore pornography, infomercials, boxing matches. Thirty years later, the deluge has only grown to unfathomable volume. Those shocked by the mix of messages could hardly have imagined a world in which kids have seen beheading videos streaming live on Facebook before they’ve left primary school.

Against this, the U2 of today have learnt that people crave moments of pure escape, of reprieve; to be taken by awe and not served with a pol-sci lecture at a rock show. In one of the most polarised periods of recent history, the Sphere show is their most politically neutral performance since they first played their high school gym in 1976.

Is it wrong to give over to indulgence while the world burns? This is not the question to ask in Las Vegas, where psychedelics are legally sold on Fremont Street, where people fly screaming over your head on a zipline suspended above the crowds. Where you can be married and divorced in the same week. Where holidaymakers in the 1950s would gather on casino rooftops to watch the distant detonation clouds of atomic bombs set off to the city’s north.

U2 are alive to all of this, and the audience is not entirely let off the hook to forget ourselves. The band were always at their most interesting when they revelled in contradictions, knowing that the best art does not supply solutions. In these current shows, “Until the End of the World” is visually matched with relentless scenes of climate destruction. During the same song on the Zoo TV tour, the black stadium screens showed enormous burning crucifixes that morphed into fiery swastikas, as Bono howled, “Don’t let it happen agaaaaaaiiinnnnn.” It was a time when neo-fascism was rising in Europe, a threat that hasn’t diminished in the intervening three decades.

Here it emerges half way through the show that its bigger narrative is one of climate change. Some hours later this message will become difficult to parse while standing under the luxurious two-headed shower at Caesar’s Palace, wondering how all this water gets to Las Vegas’s more than two million people from Lake Mead, which has been considered to be in drought for the past 20 years.

“Love Is Blindness”, Achtung Baby’s final track, is a bleak, searing invocation of the denial of betrayal between partners (Love is blindness / I don’t want to see … Love is drowning / in a deep well /All the secrets / and no one to tell), but here it is reconfigured to mirror our collective denial of what we have done to the planet in our pursuit of comfortable lives. Inside Sphere we are bathed in the same kind of ultraviolet light deployed to stop people shooting up in public restrooms. All our faces are eerily pallid and grey. As the song progresses through The Edge’s
distorted and funereal guitars, enormous black insects appear to settle above us one at a time on the outside of the dome, until, by the end of the song, it is completely covered in them, plunging us into a suffocating blackness, buried in dead insect matter.

It is profoundly upsetting, and we linger in this feeling for what seems like minutes. I won’t describe how U2 manage to bring us back to life from this moment, with a performance of another song about a deep, unending source of hope. You might find your own way to see it. But as for how it affected me
personally – embarrassingly, words fail, only to say that a part of me is still there.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see …  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
– Don DeLillo, White Noise

Sphere is the world’s most irresistible Instagram trap in a city made of them (where – if you are feeling deranged – you can visit the Museum of Selfies). It is the most photographed barn in America, with a phone infuriatingly held up by the person in front of you for almost the whole show.

Its US$2.3 billion cost was paid for by one of the world’s most notoriously disliked billionaires, Madison Square Garden owner Jim Dolan. From the outside, it is frequently lit with gorgeous images of nature and the Earth, or it becomes an enormous emoji whose eyes follow you around. It is an astonishing piece of public art, until it becomes a car commercial. It is often turned into the world’s largest billboard, hawking everything from software to insurance.

It’s not expected to break even for 20 years.

Sphere will not kill live music, as some critics of its extravagance have written, and it has certainly not killed U2. Instead, it has been the site of the band’s most innovative rebirth, cementing their reputation, and that of their many collaborators, as the boldest mass-market outfit in music. Achtung Baby stands outside of time as a record that could have been released today, and U2 are playing it with a vibrancy as if that were the case. It is a testament to the strength of its songwriting that the visual art – which renders audience and band alike tiny – doesn’t overshadow their music, but enlivens it with new depth. By the end of a six-month residency, 700,000 people will have seen the show. That a group of childhood friends well into their 60s is able to reconnect with their artistry on this kind of scale is enough to move even the most ardent cynic.

You might be suffering a failure of imagination if you believe that Sphere signifies the end of entertainment. But it could be the end of a certain kind of entertainment. The era of the stadium rock show was already ending, and it’s fitting that it’s U2 – the band that elevated the form with multimedia spectacles over the last several decades – that are hurrying it on. The carbon footprint of carting hundreds of people around for a world tour is difficult to justify. Besides, it’s much more pleasant, one would imagine, to retire from the stage by limousine straight to your platinum penthouse suite on the 80th floor of a casino than to suffer the indignities of jetlag and the strange nowhere of interchangeable hotel rooms. That is only for we pilgrims fortunate enough to journey to it: Sphere will not come to you.

Wisely, London rejected plans to build a Sphere of its own. Such a venue doesn’t belong in a functioning metropolis, where people need to go about their lives without the colossal overwhelm of its architecture dominating every part of the skyline and shrinking children like ants in its shadow on their walk to school. But it is the ultimate expression of Las Vegas. The only other place it could conceivably exist is the late-capitalist ecological nightmare of Dubai. There it might still stand in some far future, stripped of its precious LED cathodes, plundered like the Great Pyramid was of its shimmering limestone, abandoned in sunken ruins, buried in sand.

Sphere lacks a physical immediacy: it both intimidates and attracts, an uncanny allure. It takes a band of U2’s ambition and enormous music to turn it into a site of sublime transcendence in spite of its 21st century accelerationist vibe; to conjure emotional intimacy in a place so alien is true alchemy. Only a very select few visually inventive artists – maybe Kraftwerk, Björk, LCD Soundsystem – could pull off something approaching this show. To conceive of U2:UV took more than two and a half years, and it features video art and staging commissioned from Marco Brambilla, Es Devlin, John Gerrard, Industrial Light & Magic, STUFISH and Treatment Studio, with creative direction from Willie Williams, Brian Eno and Gavin Friday. Whoever it is that comes next, they will be working in U2’s shadow.

All told, Sphere is too frictionless, its design in some way bloodless, too convenient. It is an engineering marvel that is otherworldly to experience. It is impressive on a scale that is difficult to clock, but it will never displace the sweaty intimacy of a rough and dirty club show. It will never be the majestic marriage of crystal sound and perfect design of the Sydney Opera House. It will never be the filigree grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall.

Rather, it is a sleek, temperature-controlled cocoon to transform and protect you for a time from the outside world, from the desert that surrounds it, which with each passing year becomes harsher, more fragile, more arid and more hot. You leave to make your way back to your hotel through the deep, clear cool of the night, wayfinders bombarded by blaring, blazing neon, eyes like saucers, newborn babies evicted from the womb.

It will not be the end of live music. It is too perfect a Sphere.

Elmo Keep

Elmo Keep is a writer and journalist. She lives in Sydney.


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