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U2’s Las Vegas performances, from the 1980s to today

Updated July 6, 2023 - 1:38 pm

The “amazing playpen” is almost upon us.

So says the Edge.

That’s what the U2 guitarist has dubbed The Sphere, the $2.3 billion technological supernova that the band will christen in September, in a recent interview with “Rolling Stone” magazine.

Tour after tour, U2 has labored to set the rock band bar for cutting-edge concert productions.

And with their upcoming, 25-show “U2: UV Achtung Baby” residency at the new venue, they aim to push the envelope further than they ever have before, a tall feat for a band whose stage props have included four-story fruits in the past (more on that later).

“My hope is that this will be a kind of quantum leap forward in the sense of what a concert can be,” Edge said in the aforementioned interview.

Consider that sentiment seconded.

With U2’s highly anticipated Vegas stint fast approaching, here’s a look at all of the group’s local tour stops and what made each outing special (excluding a one-off appearance at the iHeartRadio music festival in 2016).

Outing: Joshua Tree Tour

Vegas date: April 12, 1987, Thomas & Mack Center

U2’s post-show ride for the group’s Vegas debut: a vehicle normally used for transporting soiled undergarments.

That’s right, U2 departed its first local show in a laundry van, having recruited look-alikes to leave the venue in a limousine, distracting fans so that the band could head downtown and shoot the iconic video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on Fremont Street.

The show came five days after “Joshua Tree” hit No. 1 for the first time on the Billboard album chart, and the Irish rockers were on the verge of becoming the biggest band in the world.

Still, the Vegas date, which drew a good crowd of 8,637 fans (out of a total capacity of 9,700), was the only arena date of the tour’s two U.S. legs not to sell out.

Outing: Zoo TV Tour

Vegas date: Nov. 12, 1992, Sam Boyd Silver Bowl

If the boob tube really was the opiate of the masses — as socially conscious rap troupe The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy contended on “Television, the Drug of a Nation,” the track that was played prior to U2 taking the stage — this production was akin to an addict’s overdose.

A cheeky commentary on the desensitizing powers of excessive modern media consumption, the tour was posited on sensory overload: The production employed 180 crew members, boasted a million-watt sound system weighing 30 tons, required a full-fledged television control room to coordinate all the visuals on the 36 video screens and even had full-sized cars dangling from the rafters.

The outing remains iconic: Rolling Stone listed Zoo TV among the 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years.

The band drew a crowd of 27,774 here, a substantial number considering the city’s smaller market size back then, but it was still well short of the show’s 37,011 capacity.

This would be the last time that a Vegas U2 show had unsold seats.

Outing: Popmart Tour

Vegas date: April 25, 1997, Sam Boyd Stadium

What did the 12-foot-wide olive say to the 40-foot lemon-shaped disco ball?

Trick question!

Prefabricated fruits are known for being tight-lipped. Besides, what words could really do the aforementioned stage props justice?

Well, perhaps “ ‘Spinal Tap’-ish” when it comes to the latter, as U2 got stuck in the motorized contraption, which delivered the musicians to the stage for their encore, on multiple occasions, including the tour-opening Vegas stop.

Costing a cool $100 million to produce, the Popmart Tour was even more over-the-top than the band’s previous outing, with a gigantic arch towering above the stage and a gargantuan video screen bigger than the three-dozen Zoo TV screens combined.

The crowd of 36,742 marked the band’s first sold-out Vegas gig.

Outing: Elevation Tour

Vegas date: Nov. 18, 2001, Thomas & Mack Center

Outing: Vertigo Tour

Vegas date: Nov. 4-5, 2005, MGM Grand Garden

Having decisively won the stadium rock arms race that pitted U2 against … U2, the band scaled things down significantly on its next two treks.

Focusing on arenas rather than stadiums — at least in the U.S. — the goal here was to make big rooms feel small with large catwalks that encircled a portion of the crowd on the floor and a more visceral, in-your-face vibe that harkened back to the band’s first tours.

During the Elevation gig, the band set the attendance record at the Thomas & Mack Center by drawing 17,771 fans.

Four years later, U2 lured a combined crowd of 31,863 to a pair of sold-out shows at the MGM Grand Garden.

So while the venues may have been smaller, the box office receipts remained outsize.

Outing: U2 360° Tour

Vegas date: Oct. 23, 2009, Sam Boyd Stadium

It looked like a giant version of one of those metal pincher thingies from a claw-crane arcade game had descended upon Sam Boyd Stadium to gobble up Bill Clinton and Paris Hilton.

Yes, both the former president and current reality show afterthought were in the house when U2 played its biggest Vegas show yet in front of a sold-out crowd of 42,213.

The tour’s “spaceship-on-four-legs” stage design was so massive and elaborate that it required daily production costs of $750,000 and upward of three days to disassemble.

It paid off: The trek remains the top-grossing tour of all time, having made more than $730 million.

“Shout for joy if you get the chance,” Bono told the Sam Boyd crowd during the show.

His accountant surely did.

Outing: Experience + Innocence Tour

Vegas date: May 11-12, 2018, T-Mobile Arena

“It’s not a place,” Bono boomed. “This country is, to me, a sound.”

“It’s not a place,” he elaborated. “This country is, to me, a thought.”

His point: America is an ideal as much as a broad swath of land — and sometimes that ideal needs defending.

This sentiment had particular resonance locally during U2’s first Vegas shows after the Route 91 Harvest tragedy on their “Experience + Innocence Tour,” which drew 30,766 fans over two sold-out nights at T-Mobile Arena.

“In times of crisis, you became even more American,” Bono noted, referencing 1 October and Las Vegans’ willingness to donate blood to aid others.

Having celebrated the 30th anniversary of their blockbuster “The Joshua Tree” album by playing it in its entirety on their “Joshua Tree Tour 2017” the year before, which didn’t come to Vegas, the band didn’t air any songs from the record, cheesing off some fans who wanted to hear classics like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “With or Without You.”

But this show was all about unsettling the audience at times with a mix of uncertainty and hope.

“I know the world is done,” Bono sang on the show-closing ballad “13 (There is a Light),” underscoring this sentiment. “But you don’t have to be.”

“There is a light. Don’t let it go out,” he implored as the song reached its conclusion, plucking a light bulb out of a model of his childhood home on stage.

Then, in a flash, he was gone.

And on came the lights.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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