- 01 Oct 23
Let Me In The Sound! As U2 hit Vegas, we ask: could this indeed be The Greatest Show On Earth?
If you’re gonna put on the BIG show, there’s really only one place on earth you got to go. Las Vegas - the city of the Big Bang and the even bigger buck - is overwhelming. Coming into the strip from the airport - especially at night - is like drowning in a sea of neon and glitter. If they decided to test another atomic bomb out in the desert while we were passing, would we even notice? And if we did, wouldn’t we just presume it was another theatrical wave of the hat from showbiz city?
Then you turn a corner and it’s there. The Sphere looks like the moon has crash landed in Nevada and - never missing a shot - the people of Vegas quickly moved as one to plug it in. It’s throwing money at the sky to create a new world wonder. It’s 90 meters high. It’s an asteroid billboard. It’s a plaything for the gods.
And that’s only on the outside. Inside, the steep seats face the largest LED screen on the planet - 268,435,456 pixels, if that kind of number makes sense to you. It’s awe-inspiring before they even flick a switch.
Revisiting Achtung Baby is a back to the future move. That album, its sister record Zooropa, and the ZOO:TV tour that followed documented a world where and when we already thought technology was taking over, but we had no idea what was coming over the hill. The Sphere - a construction beyond the reckoning of mere mortals - is what happens when technology catches up with thought. It’s advanced enough to make ZOO:TV look analogue by comparison and if going to the Zoo was a bizarre contradiction of shelling out for a concert only to watch a big telly then this Sphere experience is attending a concert only to be consumed by that screen. What your looking at is so large, so complex, so utterly mind-boggling that you’re in it rather than at it. Let Me In The Sound.
The DJ plays ‘Bennie And The Jets’ and ‘Nothing Compares To You’ from the back of the Trabant to keep us going while the ‘2 deal with some tech delays. Resorting to The Eagles shows something might really be wrong but there they are. Bono puts those shades on and the house band from Space: 1999 throw out the late night clatter and bang of ‘Zoo Station’ - this train is leaving the station, get on it now or forever remain stood with your face pressed up against the glass. Bono and the Edge sing at each other like the band from 1979. We’re off.
Everything is a lie. ‘The Fly’. Watch More TV. An impossible ask given the screen in front of us and the phenomenal cascading wall of Elvis during ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ which is actually a piece called 'King Size' by Marco Brambilla. It’s the invasion of the AI Elvii. It’s Vegas tattooed on the inside of your eye lids. It very nearly makes you feel queasy as gravity goes out for a smoke and the stage seems to levitate. It’s like nothing ANYONE has ever seen before. It’s a cat scan of the Vegas hive mind.
Should we watch the band or should we watch them portrayed in higher HD above their heads? It’s ‘Mysterious Ways’ and U2: The Animated Series. Clayton’s bass during ‘One’ is as heavy as a star and as deep as the Mariana Trench. We hug and kiss those beside us like we’re at rock n’ roll mass. Gravity comes back from the bar and waves us into the greatest hall of mirrors there’s ever been.
There are walls of light. There’s a real rope that goes into the sky. There’s a young woman on stage emphasising how a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. I’m a divorcee. I can dig it. It is very nearly all too much.
Every mouth in the building hangs open but if there were any unnecessary worry that visuals might overcome sound then a surprise Rattle & Hum section puts pay to such irrational fears. Going back to their most deliberately rootsy, woody, analogue record proves that while they have the greatest bells and whistles the world has ever known at their disposal, they don’t need them to put on a rock n’ roll show.
Bono takes the piss out of Adam Clayton - a risky move as he’s the only man who has ever made sneakers look cool - for his “bass solo” during ‘Desire’ Ok, Edge playing the four string while Bono sings ‘Love Rescue Me’ isn’t the greatest thing in the history of the world but it’s such an incredible song, they somehow get away with it.
‘So Cruel’ sounds like Roy Orbison soundtracking Blade Runner. ‘Acrobat’ and ‘Ultraviolet’ find The Edge successfully inventing a new language and his solo in ‘Love In Blindness’ might be his finest few bars. But hold on, isn’t this all about the Sphere? Yes. And No. The closing section - ‘Elevation’, ‘Atomic City’ - a nod to Blondie and a nod to this coin-eating mirage of a town - which sounds a lot stronger in the context of the show that surrounds it than it did coming out of the radio, and an absolutely impregnable combination of ‘Vertigo’, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘With Or Without You’ and ‘Beautiful Day’ - all driven with suitable skill and appropriate power by Dutch dynamo Bram van den Berg sitting in for Larry behind the kit - would sound good played on a broken 78 through a gramophone that’s been rescued from a muddy river, but when put through the custom designed sound system that God dreams about, it’s like U2 have parked that trabant in the side of your head.
Visually, it is quite literally breath taking. When they turn the cameras on the outside world of Vegas, it looks like those in the upper seats are falling from the sky. John Gerrard’s burning flags are one (incredible) thing but when Es Devlin’s ‘Nevada Ark’ goes from black and white into colour, you’ll really need to sit back down. I’m old. I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve never seen anything like this.
U2’s music might not be your bag - I met a woman last night who claimed she’d never heard of them and went along just to see the Sphere in use - but there’s no denying that they know how to put on a show and this is the best show the showbiz capital of the world has ever hosted, ergo it’s the greatest show on earth. The mountain’s not coming to him or anyone else anytime soon so Muhammad needs to pack an overnight bag and jump on a plane. If and when he or anyone else does, there’s an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, and life-affirming experience waiting out here in the city in the sand.