U2 spent Saturday night looking back at their back catalog, namely Achtung Baby, whilst previewing the future at the Sphere. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Bram van den Berg, have once again dreamt up what a two-hour concert can be.
Their sophomore show at the new innovative arena gave a glimpse of the future of live entertainment. Filled with Elvis references (including Bono making the first major wardrobe change in years; sporting a white jacket instead of a black one during the encore), U2's Sphere show proved that they're not doing this residency purely out of nostalgia. Yes, it's the band's second retrospective tour (or residency) since 2017/2019's “Joshua Tree” anniversary tour, but Bono and Co. did seem eager to prove something. That being that they're not Vegas' latest tragic case of an act too irrelevant for the limelight but even more desperate for it.
If there was a perfect choice to open the Sphere, it was U2. Plenty of pop culture X (formerly Twitter) accounts are reposting video footage from the first concert — the band's first time in pop culture since the iTunes debacle — and I've seen many ponder: Why U2? Achtung, y'all, it's because they're still the best live band on earth.
Reviving The Fly
Prior to U2 coming out, DJ Pauli “the PSM” Lovejoy was tasked with warming up the audience. Utilizing hits from Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and a very on-the-nose usage of the Beatles' “Drive My Car,” the audience's goodwill was quickly lost when the band did not come out on time. In fact, after about 20 minutes from the first show's start time, the audience became restless. This resulted in the DJ resorting to beginning “We want U2!” chants and starting the wave in an effort to distract the crowd.
Eventually, an atmospheric Brian Eno track played and U2 (sans Larry Mullen Jr.) took the stage as the Sphere's LED screens, which were previously posed as the walls of a silo, began cracking open with the opening notes of “Zoo Station.” A chill went down my spine as Bono discovered his signature Fly glasses and put them on. U2 has played this, along with many of the Achtung Baby songs live over the years, but this is the first time in a while that Bono resurrected The Fly character.
Then came an onslaught of the “ZooTV” tour setlist; following “Zoo Station” with a high-energy performance of “The Fly.” This was the first time U2 and the Sphere showed off their innovative visuals. For U2 fans, the code-breaking visuals and influx of random words have been seen before. In the song's second half, the codes began forming a tube-like visual above the crowd's head. You feel as though you're at the bottom of a funnel and that the stars really are falling from the sky.
They then played a rendition of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” which was in the album's original arrangement. During the song, an amalgamation of all things Elvis and Hollywood fell into the backdrop. If you look closely, clips of Last Night in Soho and other recent Hollywood films are weaved into the Elvis madness.
“Elvis is alive, we are dead.”
Bono quipped that U2 was attempting to disprove one-half of the theory that “Elvis is alive, we are dead.” He did add that he first saw this theory written as graffiti in Dublin. Nonetheless, Elvis' ghost still resides in Vegas, but don't expect U2 to fall into the same trap.
Night two at the Sphere lacked any deviation from the first night's setlist. The Edge had spoken about the band being less spontaneous during this residency, despite Bono seemingly teasing a different album being honored during the middle acoustic set during the first night. In turn, the biggest surprise of the night was “One” (almost) being sung in full. Bono didn't hold the microphone over the crowd for them to sing the choruses — a nice touch given they are playing Achtung Baby in full. After “Until the End of the World,” which has remained a warhorse for the band's live sets since 1992, and “Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” a song finally getting its due over the past half-decade, the band finally played one of Achtung Baby's deep cuts: “Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World.
The four-song acoustic set was filled with Rattle and Hum tracks. God only knows if U2 has more songs rehearsed to rotate in during this segment of the show. As it stands, the only real disappointment is that “Desire” is playing in a stripped-down arrangement. The song feels like the encapsulation of Vegas — especially after they played it there a few years back with casino visuals. “All I Want Is You” was played closer to its Songs of Surrender arrangement, a nice rendition that was capped off with a snippet of Lou Reed's “Walk on the Wild Side.” “Love Rescue Me” was played in a unique arrangement that featured The Edge playing the bass. It doesn't live up to the “Lovetown” tour performances of the song in 1989, but it's a well-appreciated deep cut.
Something notable from Bono was his lower register singing — particularly on the Achtung Baby songs. He sounded great during the verses of “The Fly” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).” His confidence, which was likely boosted by a string of very strong shows at the Beacon and other venues, was also sky-high as he opened “One” with a spontaneous falsetto bit which, whether it be due to an IEM issue or something else, threw off The Edge as he began playing the whole song before Bono had sung a single word.
Side two of Achtung Baby
On side two of Achtung Baby, an unknown variable was finally tackled. “So Cruel” has only been performed three times prior to the Sphere. It's one of the strongest tracks on the album, but it's hard to imagine the band playing it in a world they weren't obligated to do so. They made the most of it and it was a show-stopping performance. I wasn't sure how they'd handle the falsetto-laden choruses. Bono still has a falsetto, but Achtung Baby was the peak of his. I thought they'd take a “Mothers of the Disappeared” in 2017/2019 approach and have The Edge sing the high part while Bono vocalized with him. I was gladly proven wrong. What a wonderful surprise.
There's also a big elephant in the room. Larry Mullen Jr., U2's drummer and founder, is absent from the Sphere shows. He's given his blessing for Bram van den Berg to fill in for now. While there's only one Larry Mullen Jr., Van den Berg gave it his all and was clearly having the time of his life playing with the band.
Songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” will always be synonymous with Mullen. Van den Berg was still given the chance to infuse his own pizazz into the songs. There's no greater example than “Ultraviolet.” During the “baby, baby, baby, light my way” refrains at the end, Van den Berg was given the chance to add fills between each refrain. He'd play a different fill each time, with a brief pause in between. This was completely new for the song, and actually added a unique flavor to this rendition.
That said, the Sphere shows are U2 with three of their members. Bono, The Edge, and Adam Clayton did give Van den Berg his moments to shine musically, as well as occasionally gathering by the drum set, but the absence of Mullen is felt. Even if Van den Berg looked as though he was having the time of his life and did a lovely job filling in, here's hoping that Mullen can rejoin the band soon. Unlike other rock bands, U2 has remained a core group. They need Mullen like a “fish needs a bicycle.”
Not a perfect science (yet)
The Sphere shows are still a work in progress as this is not a perfected science. U2 has the blessing and curse of going first with these unique shows. They take full advantage of the technology in the first half of their show; whether it be trippy visuals or the callbacks to the “ZooTV” tour. Once the acoustic set begins, it's surprisingly scaled back until the last portion of the show. And it makes sense — if the acoustic songs are going to rotate, it's hard to get visuals to commit to each song.
And the band seems to be missing their signature B-stage during the Sphere shows. I believe someone in the band claimed these shows would allow for more intimacy with fans. While their images may be blown up bigger on the screens for fans in the upper sections to clearly see them, the Sphere shows do lack the same connection that their previous shows have with fans (no, the awkward fan interactions don't count). For a band so used to mobility, whether it be Bono running around the heart-shaped stage or walking through a giant LED screen that splits the arena in two, U2 is known for that. The Sphere limits that given its layout, and that's a shame.
It wasn't until “Ultraviolet” that it picked up, with various colors illuminating the screen. It's simple, yet effective for such a powerful song. And then it all picks up in the encore.
Past, present, and future
The encore, which predictably consists of hits such as “Elevation,” “Vertigo,” and Beautiful Day,” also featured the Vegas skyline as the backdrop of “Atomic City” (which rules live). “Where the Streets Have No Name” brought life into the 300 section of the Sphere, as everyone stood when the desert landscape appeared in the background with the white surrender flag. Audience videos don't do the visuals justice — especially with this sunny landscape. It truly immerses you to the point you forget you're indoors at night.
“Streets” (even with the Songs of Surrender lyrics) is a live classic, and it's nearly impossible to deny it when the organ opening or first guitar notes hit. U2 closed out their show with a one-two punch of “With or Without You” and “Beautiful Day.”
As you can tell by the setlist, U2 is doing a lot of looking back. Heck, aside from the recently released “Atomic City” was the most recent song played going back to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (not including a snippet of “Moment of Surrender”). This next line could change in the blink of an eye, especially if U2. varies their acoustic set, but it's shocking that the band completely ignores their recent catalog with the Sphere shows. Perhaps the pressures of appealing to older fans who saw the original “ZooTV” show won. But that's a shame when songs like “American Soul,” “The Blackout,” “Every Breaking Wave,” or “Invisible” could have soared.
Something missing from the encore. Whether it's a need for a “One” or “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way”-like anthem to close the show or some variation with the new-age hits, the choice of the final two songs — at least in that order — was a bit strange. I imagine that they wanted to end on an uplifting note after a heavy album like Achtung Baby.
Should you see U2 live at the Sphere?
U2 is attempting to change the landscape of live music with the Sphere. In many ways, it has laid the blueprint and will make it hard for any band to follow up their Sphere run. There was no better choice to open the venue than the band — and the Achtung Baby/”ZooTV” tour ties prove that case. U2 isn't redoing “ZooTV” per se, but the homages are clear. New music has to be on the horizon, but the band continues to look back while showing glimpses of the future.
In terms of setlist, it's the perfect combination of hits for casual and hardcore fans. It'd be easy to nitpick the order of the encore, but it's the most accessible U2 gig in a while.
You go for the visuals, stay for the music, and become an even greater U2 fan by the end of it.
“U2's U2:UV Live at the Sphere” residency continues until December 16.