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Concert Review: U2 – Sphere, Las Vegas

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100pts

Price Range : $600 - 1300

Concert Date: October 27, 2023 Location: Sphere - Las Vegas, Nevada

The lights go out, the waves of steady synth engulf us, and on the giant elliptical screen surrounding the stage an excavation takes place–stone walls crumbling to dust to reveal… a bright white light in the shape of a cross spanning the Sphere. Bono appears on a revolving dias, Jesus around his neck and oversize black leather jacket covering nearly his entire frame, The Edge strikes the first chords of “Zoo Station” like an electric shock as we in the audience… gape. Ready for the crush.

U2 at Sphere is a transportive concert experience. This is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega–and there is now only concerts before U2 at Sphere and concerts after U2 at Sphere. At the end of almost 2½ hours of exhilarating musicianship, acoustic perfection and visual sensory overload, we are converted with messianic faith in the transformative power of rock n roll as delivered by Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and substitute drummer Bram Van Den Berg (godspeed Larry Mullen in your recovery). We have all touched the celestial and yet end up more deeply rooted in Earth. Such is the purpose of U2 after more than 40 years (!) of creating iconography in musical notes–a collection of songs that has attempted to capture the grandiosity of fabled American music history itself but also with a greater mission to take us on a spiritual path of evolving consciousness and love for humanity.

The darkness of the geopolitical event of Hamas’ sickening brutality upon multitudes of Israeli men, women and children occurring just weeks before this October 27 concert surely hung heavy like a cloud over the proceeding musical journey at Sphere. Bono minced his words on this night as he had learned a lesson the previous night about the price to pay for choosing a side too directly. So, he showed his heart through his impassioned, committed delivery of vocal notes interspersed with some short pontificating in-between songs as only Bono can do. Still a beautifully expressive instrument at age 63, the lead singer’s voice still hits those high notes with piercing clarity and purpose. 

The second song on tonight’s setlist is “The Fly,” veering from the tracklist order of Achtung Baby, the album performed in its entirety. The lyrics begin with “It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky…” and it takes a dire meaning tonight. We now begin to sense that this is a band in top form and in greater unity than perhaps we’ve ever seen–this being my fourth time seeing the band in concert in 37 years. The visuals accompanying the performance continue to be breathtaking. Over the course of the concert the visuals never fail to enhance the music while at the same time transporting the audience to another dimension. “Where are we…?” says Bono, bemused as his eyes circle around Sphere. “WHO are we?” he asks just before The Edge kicks in another tune. 

Somewhere past midway of the proceedings it’s plainly obvious that The Edge belongs in the top 5 greatest rock guitarists of all time. What a wall of sound. Mesmerizing if you just isolate from the rest of the band at any given time and just watch what he’s doing. It’s jaw dropping. Anyone since Jimi Hendrix capable of creating symphonies with just one guitar? “The scientist” as Bono fondly calls him out on stage. “And we are his experiment.” Great appreciation too for Adam Clayton’s liquid, fluid bass playing–more in common with a Jaco Pastorius aesthetic than, say, a monolithic force like John Entwistle–so key to the musical fabric of U2’s indie vibe no matter how monstrous their popularity reached. 

The band makes a touching tribute to the late, great Lou Reed at one point, and Bono makes reference to Reed’s partner at the time of his death–and some credit for this type of concert for ever being able to take place has to go to the great electronic music+visual experiments of Laurie Anderson evolving in the 1980s, a true avant-garde music pioneer. Another great sound experimentalist came along in the form of Brian Eno to shape a lot of U2’s music beginning with The Unforgettable Fire, and Bono gives their formative collaborator an honorable nod as well. 

There are tributes both musically, in speech and visually to the likes of Vegas icons Elvis and Frank Sinatra cum Sid Vicious, the Beatles and a Bob Dylan collaboration taking a key spot on the setlist–but this concert is a summation of the U2 myth, with each song from Achtung Baby–indisputably one of the greatest rock albums of all time–performed with singular genius and smashing, electric, passionate force and energy, every performance of which a show highlight, plus a generous core of greatest songs from their discography. Highlights of songs in this “Elvis cathedral,” as Bono thus baptized Sphere, that were interspersed within Achtung Baby songs and thereafter were: “All I Want Is You” (more plaintive and reflective than on Rattle and Hum), “Elevation” (supremely apropos), “Vertigo” (propulsive, balls-out rock and incredible Edge-Clayton interplay), “Where The Streets Have No Name” (stunning visual of a wide open Vegas desert sunrise-to-sunset with a “burning” white flag), and the finale “Beautiful Day” that comes together in a glorious fresco of ecology, existentialism and spirituality.

“A lot of darkness in the world,” a despondent sounding Bono proclaims from the dias at one point. But then he immediately poses an eternal question: “Anyone got a light?” I’m not the only one among 18,000 in tears of joy as the band takes their final bows. I’m exhausted, exhilarated, befuddled, and on an indescribable natural high that won’t come down for days. If rock n roll can save a life, tonight my salvation arrived in the desert somewhere in the heart of darkness on the Las Vegas Strip. 

Images source: me, from Section 108 and inside/outside Sphere

October 30, 2023

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