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

Updated September 30, 2023 - 1:23 pm

Bono has secured his place in rock history, even as he continues to blaze a trail in artistic presentation. He was at the center of another groundbreaking performance Friday.

The U2 frontman rose to the moment, summoning Elvis, calling out to a Beatle and christening a spectacularly innovative venue.

In launching the Sphere for a crowd peppered with famous folk, the 63-year-old superstar announced, “Elvis has definitely not left this building.” He might as well have been referring to himself.

But if the King was there in spirit, Paul McCartney was there, in fact. Performing for “Macca,” as Bono called the knighted Beatle, was like performing for Mozart.

“We’ve stolen a lot of your songs,” Bono cheerily confessed, seeming to look at the upper section in the middle of the globe-shaped music hall. McCartney was there, out of sight but making his presence felt alongside rocker Jon Bon Jovi and powerhouse entertainment manager Irving Azoff.

Around The Sphere, Jeff Bezos, Katy Perry, Kate Hudson, Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Chelsea Clinton, Maria Sharapova, Matt Damon, Orlando Bloom, Jane Buffett, Guy Oseary, Henrik Lundqvist, Neil Patrick Harris, Andre Agassi with Steffi Graf, Josh Duhamel, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Jon Hamm, Mario Lopez, Chris Blackwell, Dakota Fanning, Zane Lowe, Jane Seymour, Lars Ulrich, Darren Aronofsky, Elizabeth Banks, Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine, Snoop Dogg, Oscar De La Hoya, Luke Wilson, Skylar Astin, Tom Schanley, Ava DuVernay, Michael Rapino, Bobby Shriver, Adam Scott and Diplo were in the mix.

Who else … ah, Flavor Flav, as we ran into him in the men’s room. For real.

It was a starry night (except when it seemed to turn to daylight) inside a venue that can evoke any climate, emotion and tableau. “U2 UV: Achtung Baby” was, at times, entirely breathtaking, completely “experiential, “to use Sphere Entertainment Executive Chairman and CEO Jim Dolan’s favorite term.

“What a fancy pad,” is how Bono opened the night.

Far beyond a conventional concert (U2 delivers those, too), the show left fans shaking their heads at what they’d seen.

A fully loaded video display of iconic Vegas images accompanied “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” The video covered the entire, rounded LED display. It seemed the whole history of Vegas entertainment splashed across that display — showgirls, the Rat Pack, the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Sign, Elvis, Nic Cage as Elvis, Austin Butler as Elvis, an elephant on stage from (it seemed) a Siegfried & Roy show, a pair of burgundy dice, several Strip and downtown hotel-casinos signs.

Visual highlights abounded. During “With Or Without You,” a Sphere floated along a lake that had overtaken the Vegas desert landscape, then opened with a flourish of “all God’s creatures,” as Bono remarked, enveloping the audience.

For “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World,” the singer held an actual rope attached to a graphic balloon projected on the ceiling overhead.

The Sphere turned bright blue during “Love Is Blindness,” showing sunlight and more wildlife during “A Beautiful Day,” which was interspersed with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” to turn on Sir Paul.

The Sphere’s ballyhooed sound system came off as advertised, full and crisp but not too loud. The band played on a Brian Eno-conceived, minimalist turntable. That design offset all the advanced technology bathing the production. An LED screen installed in the stage went largely unnoticed, for all of the illumination behind and above the performance.

The band and stage were set in the Sphere’s semi-round configuration. The venue is actually set up much as a traditional theater, a much larger version of the Colosseum, Resorts World Theatre or Dolby Live. But where it gets interesting is the “Jiffy Pop” effect, the high-rising, rounded design. You find yourself gazing up and around, the music occasionally an afterthought as you make sure you’re not missing any visual delights.

Even with the peerless audio and video capabilities, there were long stretches where the screen was not in use and the band just played its flawless set. After the first several songs from “Achtung Baby,” the band turned down the graphics and dove into selections from “Rattle and Hum.”

Throughout, the band sampled other icons’ hits, including “Love Me Do,” the “Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise and “Blackbird,” all McCartney-penned Beatles classics. “Purple Rain,” “My Way,” “Dancing in the Moonlight” and “Into the Mystic” were also touched upon.

From Elvis, U2 dove into “Love Me Tender,” with video from Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s wedding; and a sultry take of “Viva Las Vegas,” with Bono forcefully pronouncing the lyrics, “They’re all livin’ the devil may care/And I’m just the devil with love to spare,” as if confessing a crime.

Bono said during the show the band would play selections from a different album in each show. That’s likely why the graphics are minimal in that stretch, allowing for musical flexibility. Iovine produced “Rattle and Hum,” which might have been the reason songs from that album were played with him in attendance Friday.

The new single, “Atomic City,” all about Vegas, was played in the encore. Fan sites speculated “Beautiful Day” would be left off, but the band played it, triumphantly, to close the night.

Not one for lists, Bono did line up his thank-yous. He thanked “the hard workers of Nevada,” and added, “I’ll tell you who is one hard worker, Jim Dolan. I want to thank you for the Sphere,” the rock star said. “You’re one mad bastard.”

There’s no argument here. The Sphere is a testament to one man’s madness, but meant to dazzle the masses.

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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