Was it the hard-to-fathom floor-to-ceiling graphics? Or the way the immersive audio made it feel like you were in a recording studio with U2? Or maybe the way Bono carried on a seemingly intimate conversation with 18,000-plus fans?
It’s hard to pick the most impressive part of Friday’s (Sept. 29) U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere opening night — also the debut of the concert venue itself — but one thing is certain: U2 was exactly the right band to welcome the mind-blowing space.
You might think that all the technological bells and whistles could overshadow the performance, but U2’s music and message always remained the focal point throughout the two-hour set — even when a pop-culture kaleidoscope of images scrolled up the 366-foot screen in rapid succession, making it unclear if the floor or the stage might be moving or if your mind was just playing tricks on you. (That was during the Achtung Baby single “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” only three songs into the concert, and it was truly the most unreal moment of the night.)
But the real magic was often when the production chose not to inundate the full screen, pulling back with just a monochromatic blue backdrop or a starry night sky for quieter songs, or just projecting large images of the bandmembers during a turntable segment that will feature different non-Achtung Baby songs each night over the 25-show run.
In the end, Sphere never overshadows U2; Sphere magnifies U2, pairing a band that has attempted to innovate with each new tour over their 40-plus-year career with a venue that seemingly has no limits of innovation.
Billboard was in the orb for the very first night, and we’ve rounded up the best moments from the concert (and venue) debut below.
Yes, one of the best moments is simply Sphere. Nothing can prepare you for the magnitude of experiencing a concert in this venue. The band made great use of the graphics on the curved screen, whether they were being lit up by helicopters flying overhead or backed by the nearby Grand Canyon. But one of the night’s best tricks was a tangible one: A seemingly illustrated rope fell from the sky, only for Bono to actually grab ahold of it. He then walked it around the stage as an animated balloon image appeared at the other end. Finally, he pulled a fan up from the audience to carry the balloon around and then invited her to swing on the rope, which she gamely did, floating around the stage on her rope swing as she sang along with the band to “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World.” Fans will definitely be lining up for this singular opportunity.
Viva Las Vegas
“Elvis has definitely not left this building!” Bono hollered ahead of “Mysterious Ways,” adding of Sphere with a wink: “It’s an Elvis chapel. It’s an Elvis cathedral. That’s right. Tonight, the entrance to this cathedral is a password: ‘flirtation.’ Because later, we’re gonna get married, OK?” It was one of the night’s many references to Vegas touchstones, like when the band covered “Love Me Tender” as an image of Elvis and Priscilla was shown on the screen, or when Bono conjured the Rat Pack for a few lines of “My Way,” or when a video of the Vegas Strip took over the backdrop for the just-released U2 single “Atomic City.” There were some tongue-in-cheek references to the band’s three-month Sin City home, but there also seemed to be a lot of reverence for the legacy of entertainment in the desert town.
Bono Lets Us In on a Secret
After asking the crowd to get married later, the frontman let his betrothed audience in on a fun fact about “All I Want Is You” – the first non-Achtung song performed in the set after eight uninterrupted tracks from the 1991 album at the center of the Sphere concerts. “This song is an attempt to write a wedding song from a woman’s point of view,” he confided about the 1988 Rattle and Hum single. “There you have it. Never told that to anyone.”
A Tribute to Larry Mullen Jr.
When the band wrapped “All I Want Is You,” Bono said solemnly: “I’ve just sung that for Larry Mullen.” The founding U2 drummer had to sit out the Vegas shows as he recovers from surgery due to drumming-related injuries to his “elbows, knees and neck,” as he revealed late last year. “Not since October 1978 have we played a show without Larry Mullen,” Bono said, following with an introduction for fill-in drummer Bram van den Berg — who happened to be celebrating his birthday on the momentous night. “I would like to introduce you to the only man we would ask to stand – well, sit – in his shoes. It’s his birthday! It is Bram van den Berg.” As the crowd started singing “Happy Birthday,” the Dutch drummer humbly stated, “Let there be no mistake: There is only one Larry Mullen Jr.”
A Beatle in the House
Bono and The Edge wrapped up “Desire” – also from Rattle and Hum – with a little taste of The Beatles’ “Love Me Do” before letting the audience in on another secret. “Macca is in the house tonight,” Bono announced. “Paul McCartney is here. … Just know that we love you and we’ve stolen a lot of your songs,” he quipped. Bono also acknowledged the Fab Four’s possible early inspiration for Sphere. “Actually, I’m thinking that the Sphere may have come into existence [because of Sphere Entertainment president] Jim Dolan trying to solve the problem that The Beatles started when they played Shea Stadium [in 1965]. Nobody could hear you. You couldn’t hear yourselves. Well, the Sphere’s here – can you hear us?”
Bono referenced The Beatles twice more to wrap up the final song of the night, 2000’s “Beautiful Day,” singing a bit of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” (“We hope you have enjoyed the show”) followed by a few lines of “Blackbird” (“All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise”).
A Sphere Full of Stars
McCartney wasn’t the only celebrity who came out for opening night. Bono also mentioned onstage that Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were on hand, while Diplo, Luke Wilson, Jon Hamm, Dakota Fanning, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Duhamel and more famous faces walked the pre-show red carpet outside The Sphere before heading in. Diplo said on the carpet he’s open to the idea of some DJ residencies in the new venue (“I’m ready. Sphere, call me up!”), adding that he’s met Bono “a few times” but “he probably doesn’t remember me.” Paul told Billboard the pairing of U2 and Sphere makes perfect sense, because “U2 is arguably one of the biggest rock bands ever to exist, and this is arguably one of the greatest – if not the greatest – music venue on the planet. We did a tour a couple of months ago. Minds were blown.” For his part, Wilson acknowledged to Billboard that Friday night’s show “might be a little different than when I saw U2 at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth in 1986.”
Beyond the Show
In addition to all the action inside The Sphere, at the Venetian Resort next door, a two-floor fan portal dedicated to the band’s legacy is now open to the public through the final U2:UV show in December. “Zoo Station: A U2:UV Experience,” which was developed by the Live Nation-founded Vibee company in conjunction with U2’s longtime creative director Gavin Friday, includes nods to Achtung Baby, like a life-size German subway car, a vintage Trabant car on display that fans can climb into, and the Zoo TV Cinema daily screenings curated by The Edge.
ACHTUNG BABY PART 1
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Until the End of the World
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World
All I Want Is You
Angel of Harlem
Love Rescue Me
ACHTUNG BABY PART 2
Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
Love Is Blindness
Where the Streets Have No Name
With or Without You
U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere Dates
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