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U2’s Las Vegas Sphere premiere wows critics

The band's U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere residency debuted at the $2.3 billion Sphere at The Venetian on 29 September

By James Hanley on 02 Oct 2023

image © Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation

U2 have won widespread critical acclaim after ushering in “a new era in live entertainment” with the premiere of their U2:UV Achtung Baby Live At Sphere residency.

The Irish legends launched the 25-show run on Friday (29 September) to open Sphere Entertainment’s $2.3 billion Sphere at The Venetian in Las Vegas, US.

Based around U2’s classic 1991 album Achtung Baby, the residency at the cutting-edge 17,500-seat/20,000-cap venue marks the band’s first live concerts since 2019. Dutch musician Bram van den Berg has stepped in as a temporary replacement for drummer Larry Mullen Jr, who will miss the gigs as he takes time out due to surgery.

The fully-immersive show, which sees the group reunite with longtime creative collaborator and show director Willie Williams, utilises every part of Sphere’s LED screen – showcasing bespoke art from renowned artists including Es Devlin, John Gerrard, Marco Brambilla and Industrial Light & Magic, while performing on a Brian Eno-inspired turntable stage.

Variety‘s Chris Willman lauded the performance as “the greatest-show-on-earth”, concluding that it “marks the apotheosis of a bigger-is-better ethos that has regularly occurred throughout the band’s career”.

“What U2 are doing in the Sphere is going to have an impact on the whole of live entertainment”

“Not to take any credit away from U2, but the most impressive moment of the Sphere show may be when you first walk in the room,” added Willman. “And that happens on two levels, literally. Above you, that massive domed ceiling has been made to look like you are in some industrial grain silo that has been constructed sky-high.

“It’s an immediate indication of some of the offbeat photorealism you will be in for. But at the same time, if you’re on one of the lower levels of the multi-tiered auditorium, looking out over the general-admission SRO floor, and block out what’s hovering over you (which is surprisingly easy to do), you suddenly feel like you’re in the world’s coolest nightclub.”

The Telegraph‘s Neil McCormick rated the show 5/5, adding: “In the wrong hands, this technology could be quite nauseating. But U2 are past masters when it comes to the emotional dynamics of a show… The focus (for the most part) remained very much on the band on a surprisingly spartan stage, with nothing between them and the audience. They may have been high-definition on the vast screen, but they were also right there in the flesh.

“They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Not this time, I think. What U2 are doing in the Sphere is going to have an impact on the whole of live entertainment.”

“It works so well that, like Abba’s Voyage show, you leave feeling confident this is an idea others are going to copy”

In another five-star review, the Guardian‘s Alexis Petridis concluded: “This cocktail of eye-popping visuals and slightly unruly performances absolutely works, allaying any concerns that a band from the post-punk era and the old showbiz connotations of a residency in Las Vegas constitute a slightly uncomfortable fit, regardless of how many millions of records the band has sold, or how mainstream an audience they’ve attracted in the interim. Indeed, it works so well that, like Abba’s Voyage show, you leave feeling confident this is an idea others are going to copy.”

NME also awarded the gig full marks, with Damian Jones writing: “Despite the early onslaught of breathtaking visuals, surprisingly the band almost abandon them for a good middle section of the show.

“Edge previously pointed out that U2 are taking the live concert experience ‘to the next level’ and this opening night does a fine balancing act of doing just that while also ensuring their music remains very much at the forefront.”

The New York Times‘ Jon Caramanica was rather less complimentary, writing: “Impressively detailed and lightly shocking, Sphere registers in intensity if not scale — at 366 feet, it is not even one of the 40 tallest buildings in Las Vegas. But on some level, its power is grounded simply in the novelty of the shape, even in a town that already has a pyramid and a palace and a castle.

“But inside it is, simply, a concert venue, albeit one with distinct advantages and challenges. In dry stretches, when the space between the band and the huge screen and the crowd was palpable, the result paralleled the airy emptiness of a corporate convention gig. In a stadium show, you can almost obscure a low-enthusiasm performance — here there was nowhere to hide.

“That’s because, despite the visual ambition the space demands, little of that burden falls on the band itself, which is largely confined to the size of stage one might find in any regional theatre across the country. It is a strangely vulnerable and inelegant setup for what is essentially a sinecure gig for a still-craved band.”

“I’ll tell you who is one hard worker: James Dolan… Thank you for this wondrous place”

Ticket prices started at $140 for the residency, which runs until 16 December, with 60% of tickets priced under $300 and more than one million ticket requests received. Celebrities in attendance on the opening night included Paul McCartney, Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry, Jimmy Iovine, Lars Ulrich, Oprah, Matt Damon and Orlando Bloom.

The Sphere boasts the first 16K screen that wraps up, around, and behind the audience, plus Sphere Immersive Sound and 4D technologies. The 580,000 sq ft fully programmable LED screen comprises approximately 1.2 million LED pucks, each containing 48 individual LED diodes that can display 256 million different colours. Further live music headliners are yet to be announced.

The Sphere is the brainchild of Madison Square Garden Entertainment boss James Dolan, whom Rolling Stone reports earned a special shout out from Bono at the show, alongside Irving and Jeffrey Azoff, Arthur Fogel, Michael Rapino, and U2’s former managers Paul McGuinness and Guy Oseary,

“I’ll tell you who is one hard worker: James Dolan,” said the frontman. “Thank you for the Sphere. You’re one mad bastard. Thank you for this wondrous place.”


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