Bono always has a ready quip when contextualising the next great U2 adventure. “First we played clubs, then we played caves and now we play cathedrals,” he said. And right now there is no greater cathedral than the Madison Square Garden Sphere in Las Vegas, which opened on Friday with the first show in U2’s Achtung Baby residency.
Backstage before the show, hugging and high-fiving and generally spreading the love (which he does with more warmth than any other rock star), Bono was full of bonhomie. Because U2, the greatest live act in the world (copyright all newspapers), were about to do what they are best at: convening, entertaining, and giving meaning to the art of performance.
Yet again, U2 are reinventing the 21st-century live experience, this time in a venue that looks like the world’s largest marble. As I flew into Vegas on Thursday night, the Sphere looked as though it had colonised the city’s famous Strip, a beautiful, gigantic pixelated piece of post-modernist sculpture sitting proud above a sea of correlated kitsch. Characterised by a 90m-tall circular exterior, covered in a mind-boggling LED screen, the Sphere contains a steeply seated auditorium, completely covered with an enormous wraparound screen.
Billed as the largest LED screen in the world, it features 268,435,456 pixels (I didn’t count), the equivalent of 72 gargantuan televisions. There are bells, there are whistles, and there is everything in between. It cost more than $2 billion and you can see every dollar. Every minute of content produced for the show is the equivalent of one hour of streaming television, and it’s all there in front of you.
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of their first comeback album, Achtung Baby, the concerts won’t feature drummer Larry Mullen, as he’s recuperating from back surgery, marking the first time since 1978 that the group will perform without him; Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg from the band Krezip is more than ably filling in.
Designed by longstanding U2 collaborator Willie Williams, the show will feature material commissioned from a number of artists, including Brian Eno, Es Devlin, and Industrial Light & Magic. The sound was built by German AV specialists Holoplot (who also worked on David Hockney’s Lightroom installation in King’s Cross), the system consists of a matrix of 167,000 speakers integrated behind the screen, designed to give everyone in the room a slightly different experience.
And what an experience it was.
Backstage before the show you could sense the band were nervous — hardly surprising when you consider that this is their first live venture without their original drummer. But they disguised it well, with the Edge fist-bumping hello, a clean-shaven and beaming Adam Clayton stalking around, Frank Gehry talking animatedly about the car he once tried to design with Bono, plus former Island boss Chris Blackwell (who first signed them), U2 producer Steve Lillywhite, and activist and now film producer Bobby Shriver asking about Keir Starmer’s chances of success. Oh, and Paul McCartney, Jimmy Iovine, Dr Dre, the band’s original manager Paul McGuinness, and Lady Gaga’s parents. Obviously.
Playing on a huge turntable designed by Eno (the original of which was recently on display at the Paul Stolper gallery in London), the band were surrounded by the LEDs, which immediately started approximating video games, landscapes, spacescapes and graphic hallucinations. The screens are bewilderingly good, so good that it’s impossible to take your eyes off them. You stare at them, wondering what on earth they are going to do next — and with very few exceptions the visual chapters are brilliantly confounding. You stop thinking, “How did they do that?” and start wondering if there is anything they can’t do. As one wag put it, this is like IMAX meeting the Death Star. It’s also an experience designed for social media, and I guarantee that it will immediately become the most shared show on Instagram.
Occasionally, the band looked dwarfed, but not often, although even I felt a little seasick when the entire inner shell filled with Wes Anderson-style imagery during Even Better Than the Real Thing. They use the digital skin brilliantly, even creating a massive balloon during Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World.
This is a five-star experience, and there is nothing about the show that doesn’t work. As advertised, this is the Achtung Baby album interspersed with some greatest hits, plus of course an airing of their new single Atomic City in front of a brilliantly executed “live” feed of Las Vegas itself — cars move, buildings collapse! Occasionally, Bono would calm things down by drawing attention away from the screens and back to the band.
“We need to take a break from Achtung Baby,” he said at one crucial moment. “We need to take a break from all that intensity just to try and get to know each other. Achtung Baby had a difficult birth, though an easy conception. Isn’t that always the way? Bringing up children is the great adventure and discovering that they’re the ones bringing you up.”
Well, Achtung Baby is certainly all grown up now. Yet again U2 have reinvented the live concert, creating a template which will no doubt be copied by everyone. Fuse this with the technology from the ABBA Voyage spectacle and you have the future of the entertainment industry.
As this is such a visual spectacle, the band’s challenge is to make their performance intimate, something which, fortunately, they are masters of — going off-piste with snatches of songs by Vegas legends such as Elvis and Sinatra, Bono picking a girl from the audience to ride on a ridiculously long swing (echoes of Live Aid), and talking to the crowd.
“What a fancy pad,” he said, casting his eye over the ridiculousness of the setting. “Elvis has definitely not left this building. It’s an Elvis chapel. It’s an Elvis cathedral. That’s right. And tonight, the entrance to this cathedral is a password: flirtation. And later, we’re going to get married, okay?” He also tried to deflate the enormity of the spectacle with his wardrobe, a casual nod to his original Achtung Baby stage uniform.
At the end Bono addressed the show’s instigator, the CEO of Madison Square Garden. “James Dolan. Thank you for the Sphere. You’re one mad bastard. Thank you for this wondrous place.”
Vegas is currently a state of organised disrepair, as it is being transformed to facilitate the upcoming Grand Prix on November 18. The construction work means the city is even more of a car park than usual, and as it’s so difficult to walk anywhere, it makes movement almost impossible. However, U2 will perform more than two dozen shows over the next few months, playing to 20,000 people a night, who will have to negotiate Nevada’s biggest building site.
MSG are trying to build a similar Sphere in Stratford, although there have been persistent objections from the local council and residents. Michael Gove — recently rarely on the right end of an argument — has also weighed in, and is considering a public inquiry. If I were him, I’d put a stop to any formal objections immediately, because London really shouldn’t miss out on this. It really is the greatest show on earth.