U2 atomic-tech showmanship at Sphere opening



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U2 opens The Sphere in Las Vegas Image: The Sphere at the Venetian Resort, Tomás Del Coro, CC BY-SA 2.0

The U2 (Irish rock band) arrived at the Atomic City (Las Vegas) with a blast. The opening night of the band’s ‘residency’ at Las Vegas’ (US) new Sphere which opened on September 29th has been months in preparation the synthesis of some of the finest minds in contemporary staging and multimedia art, as well as an in-house team honed by decades of experience working for the band.

‘Wallpaper’ stated that this two-hour show was nothing short of remarkable, achieving the near-impossible task of engaging with the long-established world of Vegas showmanship along with the esoteric, avant-garde and subversive stylings of individual artistes, all wrapped up in the dazzling technological sophistication of the Sphere.
 

U2 in Las Vegas, Opening Night

The U2 are an Irish rock band from Dublin, formed in 1976. The group consists of Bono (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), the Edge (lead guitar, keyboards and backing vocals), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums and percussion). Initially rooted in post-punk, U2’s musical style has evolved throughout their career, yet has maintained an anthemic quality built on Bono’s expressive vocals and the Edge’s chiming, effects-based guitar sounds. Bono’s lyrics, often embellished with spiritual imagery, focus on personal and sociopolitical themes. Popular for their live performances, the group have staged several elaborate tours over their career.

The 18,600-capacity Sphere at the Venetian Resort, commonly referred to as the Sphere and previously as the MSG Sphere, is a spherical music and entertainment arena in Paradise, Nevada, United States, near the Las Vegas Strip and East of the Venetian Resort.

‘Wallpaper’ further stated that the show, which spliced well-loved tracks from 1991’s ‘Achtung Baby’ with a scattering of bona fide classics, as well as a more meditative acoustic section, managed to be both bombastic and intimate. For the diehard U2 fans – thousands of whom were in attendance on the opening night – setlists and running order mattered less than simple attendance at Bono’s masterfully managed altar.

Yet, there’s plenty to admire for even the casual Las Vegas showgoer, starting with the voluminous capacity of the venue itself. Rumored to cost around $2bn and the brainchild of Jim L Dolan of the Madison Square Garden Sports Corporation, the Sphere is, as yet, unrivaled for the fidelity of its audiovisual presentation. What you need to make it really sing, however, is U2’s level of artistic vision.

The Madison Square Garden Sports Corporation is an American sports holding company based in New York City. The MSG Sports manages the professional sports teams.

The band’s collaborators are used to making grand gestures – this is, after all, music that evokes big skies and big emotions. Over a series of increasingly grandiose live statements dating all the way back to the late 1980s, the U2 have helped create the template for the modern stadium rock show. ‘U2:UV Achtung Baby Live’ At Sphere moves the needle yet again.

Willie Williams (set designer best known for his work with the rock band U2), Es Devlin (British designer) and Adam Clayton informed about the origins and evolution of the show’s staging, it was without the benefit of seeing anything other than the stills. The team can be justifiably proud of the way they tackled a technological unknown and gave all systems a proper workout, without compromising the intimacy and emotion generated by hearing a well-loved song in amongst a huge audience.

Bono is a masterful frontman, happy with the occasional musical adlib, and effusive in his praise for his fellow musicians – The Edge on guitar and keyboards, Adam Clayton on bass and the Dutch drummer Bram van den Berg deputizing for the original U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. The last is sitting this residency out after recovering from surgery, making this evening (September 29th) the first time the band have played without him in 45 years. Bono also gives a shoutout to the artistes involved, as well as an invited audience of U2-related top brass and plenty of other entertainment industry luminaries – Sir Paul McCartney (English singer-songwriter and musician), Dr. Dre (American rapper and record producer) and Snoop Dogg (American rapper and actor), among them.
 

Highlights?

There are many. Marco Brambilla’s shimmering cascade of cultural memories that backdrops ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ (U2 official music video), the neo-Holzer typographic bombardment and tumbling numbers that accompany ‘The Fly’ (U2 song), the magnificent use of John Gerrard’s (Irish artist) epic series of ‘flags’, or the self-disassembling Vegas skyline that has been conjured up by Industrial Light and Magic to the soundtrack of new single, ‘Atomic City’.

Marco Brambilla is an Italian-born Canadian contemporary artist and film director, known for recontextualisations of popular and found imagery and use of 3D imaging technologies in public installations and video art.

Willie Williams informed that he had concerns about dealing with the scale, noting that “it’s actually quite fatiguing taking in an image that big”, and respite is provided by the semi-acoustic middle section, which the band promised will showcase an ever-changing setlist of songs throughout the concert’s run. This is where Brian Eno’s (English musician, composer, record producer, and visual artist) giant turntable comes into its own, subtly shifting in color in accordance with the music. The big screen is toned down in this section, used only to magnify the performers for the benefit of those on the top tier of the massive egg-shaped auditorium.

The show opener, Achtung Baby’s first track – ‘Zoo Nation’, transformed the venue from a towering concrete-lined temple into a vast patchwork of imagery. Es Devlin said that this was a deliberate way of distracting the audience from what’s to come – “The materiality is what’s interesting, something that’s not as mutable as pixels.”

Devlin’s ‘Nevada Ark’ forms the backdrops to the final clutch of songs, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘With or Without You’ and ‘Beautiful Day’, as a massive sphere within a sphere looms over the audience before swinging around to reveal a kaleidoscopic panorama of creatures, feathered, finned and furred, a sight replicated on the Sphere’s exterior surface as the audience files out at the end.

Is this the beginning of a new arms race in entertainment technology? Las Vegas is a fitting location for something as expensive and outrageous as the Sphere but the way the venue demands a monumental approach to staging just won’t suit every artist. Cast your eyes up and down the Strip and one will see plenty of acts, old and new, bringing a bit of ‘Sin City’ sizzle to their careers. The U2 were one of the originators of the modern stadium rock show at Sphere, they’ve taken it to another level.

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