U2 guitarist The Edge on the convergence of art, music, and technology at The Sphere in Las Vegas
If Las Vegas is about big bets, it doesn’t get much bigger than a new $2.3-billion venue opening Friday on the Strip called The Sphere.
From the outside, images are projected onto a huge dome to make it look like the moon or a basketball. On the inside, the highest resolution LED screen on earth, thousands of speakers, scents and wind create an immersive experience for those who bought a seat.
On opening night, the rock band U2 will harness all this to kick off a 25-show residency — U2:UV: Achtung Baby Live at Sphere — in the first performance inside the new venue. The nearly sold-out residency run starts Friday and runs through Dec. 16. U2’s new single, “Atomic City,” drops on Friday too.
“What’s wonderful about it is we really don’t know what’s gonna happen,” U2 guitarist The Edge says. “I’II say that because the sort of missing element here is the U2 audience. We’ve got all these amazing things to showcase and such beautiful immersive pieces and I think in a kind of purely visual way, they are going to be jaw-dropping — but it’s the audience that’s going to make it.”
Those visuals range from the stage — a large-scale version of Brian Eno’s Day-Glo record player — to a full 16K video installation featuring AI-generated Elvises. The work of Es Devlin, who designed Adele’s most recent tour and has worked with U2 in the past, will also contribute to the ambiance.
The Edge believes the show has found a balance between rock show and cinematic experience, largely through these intentional artist collaborations.
“Great rock and roll shows are about the performance, getting lost in the music and the audience being part of that,” he says. “At their best, I think rock and roll is when no one in the building knows what’s about to happen because there’s no script, and that includes the band themselves. So we didn’t want to give up that quality in attempting to put on something at the Sphere.”
U2 has always used live shows to illuminate societal issues from the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s to apartheid and women’s rights.
The Edge says that some of the art in this show responds to environmental themes, in particular the new co-commissioned John Gerrard piece, “Surrender (Flag).” It features the desert — which U2 has explored many times already, like on the 1987 album “The Joshua Tree” — but it also fits the Las Vegas backdrop for these shows.
“Without banging you over the head with it … it’s really a comment on in a very subtle way our addiction to fossil fuels. And I guess what it is that we really hold dear, what defines us as a culture and a society,” The Edge says.
“Surrender (Flag)” was originally supposed to appear behind the song “ Every Breaking Wave,” until the band saw an even better opportunity to utilize it behind “Where the Streets Have No Name,” The Edge says.
Another key moment for visuals in the show comes with the song “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” The song will become an ode to Las Vegas in a 16K x 16K video projection piece by the artist Marco Brambilla called “King Size,” featuring AI-generated images of — who else — Elvis Presley.
It may be a lot to take in, but getting overstimulated is sometimes OK, The Edge says.
“That kind of a song, it’s just people are going to be completely lost in the visuals, and that’s fine,” he says. “It’s a kind of a song about the beauty of surface. It’s about not disregarding things simply because they seem too obvious.”
The Edge says that while the band has now spent months working on it, they can still imagine what it’s like to see it for the first time.
“We’re so excited to blow people’s minds with what this place can do and the content we created and the great works that we’ve worked on with these artists,” he says. “I think it’s a whole new category, really, of experience.”
But all of these bells and whistles don’t come cheap — for the venues or the audience. Larry Miller, a music business professor at New York University, talked about the risks for both sides in approaching a project this ambitious.
The stage at U2’s residency at Las Vegas’ The Sphere. (Stufish Entertainment Architects)
“For many artists, there’s going to be a financial constraint, where, even if there is an incredible story to tell, amazing content that they might envision that at least initially, the cost of producing that content may get in the way,” Miller says. “Not to mention that there may be a limited number of touring acts who are capable of playing the kind of residency in Las Vegas that U2 can play — at those prices especially.”
And ticket prices reflect these risks. Prices range from $140 to more than $1,400 for Platinum tickets on Ticketmaster, and hundreds more as the sold-out show comes up on third-party sites. But could the price be worth it to see the next generation of live performance? U2’s doubling down that the answer is yes.
“Where we start to dive into the potential of this immersive experience is where we’re really experimenting on ourselves. And to some extent our audience,” The Edge says. “We’re just so fascinated with where this is leading us. And quietly, I think we’re all extremely confident about the fact that it’s really like a new thing — that this is the beginning of something not just for us, but in rock and roll. I think there is the beginning of a new form, a new way to present a rock and roll band.”
All technology aside, The Edge notes that there will be some subdued moments in the show and that the music will still be what fans expect from a U2 show: great rock and roll.
The show celebrates the band’s 1991 album “Achtung Baby,” which will be played in full and features some of the band’s biggest hits, including “Mysterious Ways” and “One.”
“Obviously, now we’re playing the full album. That’s kind of one of the ideas of this show and discovering some of the deeper cuts from side two has been such a thrill,” The Edge says. “And really, I mean hearing Bono sing those songs in rehearsal, it’s very powerful stuff. So the music side, I think, is really a much more understood aspect.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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