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Best entertainment moments of ‘23: U2, Sphere, F1 and the VGK’s first Stanley Cup

Updated December 26, 2023 - 10:03 am

The moment 2023 became a different kind of year happened in the men’s room at the launch of “U2 UV: Achtung Baby” at the Sphere in September. It was during the break before the legendary band was to return to the stage for an encore, where we would certainly hear the new “Atomic City” and the classic “Beautiful Day.”

I was at the sink, and instantly recognized the clock-wearing figure to my left … Flavor Flav.

“Flav!” I shouted. And he called back, “Johnny Kaaaaaats!” We laughed, clasped our wet hands and hustled back to U2’s glorious show opening the venue. Public Enemy once called out, “Don’t Believe the Hype,” but the Sphere matched its hype in ‘23. My top-five favorite stories of 2023:

1. Bono embraces Elvis, shouts to McCartney in game-changing Sphere opener

A montage of Vegas icons moved from the back of the rounded LED display toward the band, on a seemingly tiny turntable-esque stage designed by Brian Eno. Glowing forth were images of the Rat Pack, classic Vegas showgirls, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign, Elvis, Nicolas Cage as Elvis, Austin Butler as Elvis, an elephant on stage from Siegfried & Roy show, burgundy dice, and a bevy of Strip and downtown hotel-casinos signs. As this movable mural descended, I felt I was rising, and grabbed the seat in front of me. This was just one moment of an entire night of, “I have never experienced this before.” The Sphere is a lot of everything, folks. A lot of tech, a lot of effort, a lot of cost, a lot of planning and a lot of walking. But it is worth the pilgrimage.

2. U2 premieres new single in surprise downtown Las Vegas show

Yes, two from U2 in the Top Three. But unlike the epic performance at the Sphere, this event was not a concert but a spontaneous moment captured out in the open. With Larry Mullen Jr. back on drums, the band rolled around Fremont Street and Main Street on a flatbed truck serving as a stage. The performance was filmed for the “Atomic City” video, with hundreds of onlookers and hired extras filling the scene.

With his back to Plaza’s Carousel Bar, Bono called for a solemn, country-fied version of “Still Haven’t’ Found What I’m Looking For” — the song from the band’s enduring 1987 video, shot nearly on that same spot. Near the end, Bono said, “Thank you Mr. Plaza, thank you Circa,” nodding to the hotel-casinos in this only-in-Vegas postcard.

3. ‘Short and sweet’: Music superstars fill up F1 opening party on Strip

After nearly 40 years of covering all kinds events, it’s rare for me to walk into something completely new and unknown. The opening night of F1’s Las Vegas Grand Prix was just such a night. The premiere concert lasted 30 minutes, which is about as long as Aerosmith’s pre-show documentary that played during its residency at Dolby Live. My $80 pedi-cab simply didn’t get me there in time to access the event. But I did get a behind-the-scenes rundown via a text from Journey’s Neal Schon.

I then headed to One Night for One Drop at Marquee at Cosmopolitan and “Lights Out,”Spiegelworld’s one-off, F1-themed comedy/musical, also at Cosmopolitan. In this F1-themed wrap, I’ll tack on my exclusive interview with Mark Wahlberg at the Vista part at Drai’s at the Cromwell (where he announced the world premiere of “The Family Plan” would be at the Chelsea at Cosmopolitan, and my chat with Shaquille O’Neal at Club SI at Flamingo’s Magaritaville space. Shaq said he wants NBA in Vegas even if it means joining LeBron James’ movement.

What else … I also chatted with the hierarchy of Oak View Group, CEO Tim Leiweke and high-ranking execs Marc Badain and Randy Morton. They radiated confidence that their $10 billion casino resort-arena concept on Las Vegas Boulevard and Blue Diamond Road would be home to an NBA expansion team. Give it three years. Oh, and the F1 race made for great TV, salvaging some goodwill after locals withstood six brutal months of construction. See you next year, when the systems (and punctuality) will be better.

4. From Kings to Golden Knights: Maloofs’ day changed Vegas history

It was a comparatively sedate scene hours before the Golden Knights rocked T-Mobile Arena by beating the Florida Panthers 9-3 in their clinching Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 13. It was Gavin, Joe and George Maloof and I hunched over a digital recorder in the Maloofs’ VIP suite. The brothers and Golden Knights minority owners recalled how they pitched the idea of an expansion NHL team to Commissioner Gary Bettman on the very day they finalized their sale of the Sacramento Kings in New York. The Maloofs’ efforts ignited NHL expansion plans in Las Vegas, which subsequently inspired other major leagues — including the NFL — to do business in the city. At the end of the game, I hit the ice and distributed commemorative R-J front pages trumpeting the team’s Stanley Cup championship. By morning, I was alongside the victorious Golden Knights at their raucous victory party at Omnia at Caesars Palace. The team hoisted the Cup to an explosion of emotion, Steve Aoki fired the party cannons in his custom VGK jersey. By the time I waded out, coincidentally alongside celebrant Reilly Smith, I recognized this was real center-of-the-universe stuff.

5. Meet Las Vegas’ real-life Ray Donovan

Rick Barnes helped a member of the Rolling Stones get sober, and Ronnie Wood shared as much in his autobiography, “Ronnie.” Barnes is a life coach to high achievers, a one-man wellness center who has watched Super Bowls with NFL owners and once met then-Prince Charles (the man who would be king of England). But he’s anonymous no more, moving to Vegas in 2019 and running his own wellness company. He’ll tell you he’s fortunate to be running anything, having lived clean and sober since a night in 1991 when he entered a treatment facility in Beverly Hills. He’d been in Palm Springs partying with friends at a hotel, drinking heavily, “snorting a ton of coke and smoking heroin” for 48 hours. He passed out, and his fellow partiers called 9-1-1 “then packed up their (stuff) and left.” His recovery, and the recovery of dozens of superstar clients, started there.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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