LAS VEGAS – Believe the hype.
Regardless of what happens at the multibillion-dollar Las Vegas behemoth following U2’s opening rush of shows over the next three months, the band’s “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” performance is a marvel.
To call Sphere a spectacle doesn’t do justice to the structure that, at 516-feet wide and 366 feet tall, takes up about two city blocks and is taller than a football field is long. It's the world’s largest spherical shaped venue according to designers and its walls of video screens envelop the audience in a visual embrace and pristine, isolated sound.
It’s IMAX meets the Death Star – with a lot of swagger, a head trip of artsy graphics and a trove of heartfelt songs.
When the lights dropped at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 29 for the inaugural Sphere event, U2 entered from the back of the clean, airy stage designed to look like a turntable in homage to a Brian Eno art project. Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Bram van den Berg, who was announced from the first rumblings of this 25-date run as the fill-in drummer for health-sidelined Larry Mullen Jr., strolled onstage.
Bono, strutting and waving his microphone, quickly donned the trademark eye wear of his alter ego The Fly for “Zoo Station,” the first track from the band’s “Achtung Baby” album and the anchor for these Vegas shows, the band’s first live performances in four years.
That 1991 classic was played in its entirety as advertised, but U2 shuffled the track listing, diving into “The Fly” as words such as “Patience,” “Destiny” and “Truth” flashed on towering screens in neon and hundreds of colored numbers and letters zipped to the pinnacle of the dome of the Sphere.
With so many memorable visual stunners, it’s tough to pinpoint the cleverest, but the mega-sized video of Elvis Presley meshed with scenes of old Las Vegas and close-ups of U2 floating in bubbles during “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is a front-runner.
Bono and the boys have always been vocal about their affection for the classics, and their show includes several nods – some more subtle than others – to their Vegas forebears.
“Look at all this stuff,” Bono said, scanning the 17,000-plus crowd and the graphics surrounding the band. “Elvis has definitely NOT left this building. It’s an Elvis cathedral and tonight there is a password to enter: flirtation.”
That introduction led to the slinky guitar lines of “Mysterious Ways,” with Clayton holding down the sexy low end of the song on bass and the Edge, knit cap firmly in place, looming over the crowd on screen.
Elsewhere in the two-hour show – which included a celebrity squad including Sir Paul McCartney, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Connie Britton, Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston – Bono detoured into a stripped version of Presley's “Love Me Tender” at the close of “One,” nodded to Van Morrison with some of “Into the Mystic” tucked into “Angel of Harlem” and unveiled Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as a prelude to “Atomic City,” their swinging new rock song inspired by Las Vegas.
Dedications were rife as well, as Bono, in fine, muscular voice, bowed to McCartney with “Desire” (“Just know that we love you and we’ve stolen a lot of your songs,” Bono teased) and saluted the late Jimmy Buffett, whose family was also in attendance, with a sweet rendition of the rarely played “Love Rescue Me.”
“It’s so hard to say goodbye to someone,” Bono said, choking up while speaking.
He also noted that these were the first shows U2 has played without Mullen since 1978 and added a dedication of “All I Want is You” to the band’s drummer and founder. The steady van den Berg isn’t as light a touch on the snare as Mullen, who is recovering from various neck, knee and elbow issues, but the Dutchman proved a proficient substitute.
Several times during the night, Bono, a man with a band that has played the biggest crowds and venues in the world, appeared overcome with emotion and in awe of the surroundings, but much joy emanated from the stage.
While not every song from “Achtung” is normally worth a set list appearance, to hear album cuts “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World” – last played live in 1993 – and “So Cruel” was a windfall for diehard fans.
Meanwhile, the more casual U2 follower was rewarded with a 30-minute feast of favorites following “Love is Blindness,” the last song on “Achtung” played as images of bugs and butterflies crept into focus on the surrounding screens.
The vibrant “Elevation” kickstarted the final sprint and, while not as kinetic as the houselights-up opening from 2001’s tour of the same name, was nonetheless an explosive roar of sound and illuminations.
Helicopters hovered overhead on screen for the slashing “Vertigo,” the band projected in spotlights blasting from the bottom of the digital aircraft, while a crystal-clear desertscape and sunburst stretched the entire width of the building for the ringing anthem, “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
It’s fair to wonder if such a gargantuan production eclipses a band. Not this one. Especially since some of the most moving moments were in the small details and the inherent earnestness of U2’s music.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: U2 opens Sphere Las Vegas with stunning spectacle: Review