U2 has announced the first dates this fall for a series of shows being billed as “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” — just five nights in late September and early October, for now, although the possibility of more shows being added seems more like a probability. The ambition and logistical planning of creating a unique show for Sphere, the world’s most technologically advanced space for music, certainly ultimately augurs for a longer run, even if U2 has studiously been avoiding sticking around Vegas quite long enough to merit the avoided word “residency.”
U2’s guitarist, the Edge, got on a Zoom with Variety last week to discuss the enormously ambitious run of shows, following a demonstration of the design and technology for Sphere that was held for a handful of media representatives at a scale model of the building in Burbank. Although the concerts will be themed around the 1991 “Achtung Baby” album (with the “UV” in the show’s title referring to the album track “Ultraviolet”), the Edge said that Sphere itself was the reason for conceiving the new show. “When we found out about what this venue was really offering us creatively, we kind of saw it as a throwdown … as a challenge,” he says.
The five initial shows are set for Sept. 29-30 and October 5 and 7-8. To obtain tickets, prospective buyers will be required to register here for a Verified Fan presale from today through Wednesday morning; on Thursday, the presale will open up to fans who are selected to receive an access code. Tickets start at $140, with “all-in” pricing, getting in line with Live Nation’s stated goal of nudging artists toward agreeing to put a singular price tag on tickets, fees included. The promoter is promising that 60% of the available tickets for the spectacular will be priced under $300, although premium seats will also be part of the equation.
The capacity at the venue, with a modest standing GA area in front, will be around 20,000 each night. That’s roughly the seating of a large arena, although (as the cutaway sketches for Sphere below reveal) the configuration of the venue is nothing like an arena. Most such venues are in-the-round, by nature, having been designed for sports, but at Sphere, it’s the surrounding massive-scale visuals that are around a centrally situated, amphitheater-style tiered audience, with a much more than 180-degree view of a spherical big screen that might best be described as IMAX on ultra-wrap-around steroids. (Veterans of cinema developments of the past may also be reminded of immersive experiments from three-panel Cinerama to Disneyland’s Soarin’ Over California, albeit on mega-mega-mega steroids.) The facility, located a block from the Strip and adjacent to the Venetian, will also include new innovations in spatial audio, with thousands of targeted speakers tucked away behind the tens of thousands of LEDs — and embedded in most of the fixed seats themselves.
Here’s what the Edge had to tell us about the development of the show; rehearsals still well in progress with temporary drummer Bram van den Berg (filling in for the surgery-requiring Larry Mullen Jr.); and whether the concerts will be an homage to the 1992-93 “Zoo TV” tour as well as the 1991 “Achtung Baby” album. Although he makes it sound like a return to standard touring is in the cards as early as next year, the guitarist leaves little doubt that he believes performing inside the largest spherical structure in the world could be even better than the stadium/arena thing
You’ve been resisting the term residency, and maybe that’s just because it’s so reductive. Is that just because of the scope of it, or the connotations that people have with a typical Las Vegas experience?
I mean, it’s a run of shows, for sure, but it’s not like we’re having to move to Vegas for the year. Because of the size of the venue, the scope of this run will be probably a maximum of six weeks. And we couldn’t possibly really realistically do more shows than that. So I don’t think it really qualifies as a classic residency.
And I suppose also there’s this… I don’t want to call it a stigma. There was sort of an assumption about what it is if you’re going to Vegas — and, you know, some of my favorite artists have gone to Vegas, so I don’t see it as a negative. But, for a lot of people, they would think of it as being very show-biz. And U2, sure enough, we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band and we put on a show, so we’re not kind of looking down our noses at the show business aspect of what we do. But at the same time, there’s generally something that we’re aiming for other than just a pretty show with nice lights and fun songs. And, you know, this venue, as much as we are fascinated by Vegas, and some of our favorite artists, like I think of Frank Sinatra and his association, Elvis, but then there’s sort of Hunter S. Thompson and the fact that it’s a place of sort of aspirations, sometimes achieved but mostly disappointed. It’s symbolic of so much about America, we’ve always found it fascinating. And we did our video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on the streets of Vegas way back in the ‘80s.
But it’s the venue and it’s the technology that is really the catch for us, and the hook. Because when we found out about what this venue was really offering us creatively, we just were completely intrigued. And the more we found out, we kind of saw it as a throwdown … as a challenge. You know, it’s like we’re the band that famously asks our creative team, as we’re first putting a tour together, you know, we sit them down and we ask them the same question: “OK, what’s never been done before?” And performing in the Sphere is the ultimate opportunity to be the first band in there, to really explore what could be — and I think may well be — a kind of brand new creative genre. It was just such a kind of alluring possibility. And we looked hard at it for a while, because there’s jeopardy there — of course there is. But we just are suckers for something like this, a real creative challenge.
How much of the show might call back to the Zoo TV, versus being totally re-thought in every way?
Well, we’re in the process of developing all of the visual aspects of the show. And we have decided to make “Achtung Baby” the centerpiece, but we will be doing other songs as well. I would say we’re probably gonna be referencing “Zoo TV” in some of the visuals. You know, when “Zoo TV” first came out, it was totally new, groundbreaking. No one had ever done anything like that before. But some of that has become just de rigeur in the industry, in terms of the visuals supporting concert performances. And it’s just become part of the regular furniture. But actually, when we started to reapply it to the demo, the big demo that you went to the other day, we realized that actually there were brand new things to be done that you can only ever do in this venue with this size of immersive screen. So I would say we’re excited that we can use the facility as it was designed to be used from time to time, which is immersive cinema, and really transport our audience to some other place, some other time. You know, we can time-travel with the screen. I mean, there’s things you can do here which are amazing. But we also I think can go into the world of graphic arts and digital arts and very cool IMAG video, in ways that have never been attempted. And again, that’s the beauty of this venue. It offers up so many opportunities to do things for the first time. So there will be some references, but it’s not really a revival of “Zoo TV” as much as it is a commemoration of the “Achtung Baby” album.
The Zoo TV tour had an attitude, to say the least, in the ironic use of visuals. That could still possibly be relevant today, if you went that way, although 30 years have passed. But it’s easy to see why you might not want to go back to that exact vibe.
Yeah, it was a process. I mean, we’d thought about another revival tour (after the “Joshua Tree” anniversary tour), but we just thought, well, that was such a moment in time. And Zoo TV was really drawing on lots of different threads that were existing in art and music at the time. It was a lot to do with a satire on how the news had become this entertainment format, and so much dissemination of the news was kind of coming with bells and whistles. It was no longer a sort of pure service. And we were riffing on some of our favorite artists. The Dadaists were a movement that we were referencing, John Heartfield particularly, who was this German artist who spoke out against the Nazi movement in Germany, and he used humor and satire to sort of combat fascism — and that that was one of the threads in Zoo TV.
Well, cut to today. I mean, I think it would be almost impossible to do a satire of what’s happened to news media in the world. It’s gone so far in that direction that it’s beyond satire. So I think there will be a political aspect, but I think what we’re gonna be focusing on as much as we can is the songs, the humor, the truth within the material and possibilities, and taking a different tack. I think there has to be for this moment, and so just to try and recreate Zoo TV for today would not feel fresh, would not be relevant, in the way that we want this show to be. So we’re in the process of figuring it out. And that’s the great thing. This is my favorite phase, where you really are trying to find those connections between the visuals and the music. Letting the music be your boss; letting the music dictate where the visuals go. We’re very excited about what we’ve got going so far.
How has it been a rehearsing with a different drummer? We understand you’ve been doing some rehearsing in a sphere, so you’re already thinking about the space, of course, as you do that. What have rehearsals been like?
They’ve been fun. The material, again, is so strong. And our stand-in drummer, Bram, is doing an incredible job. I mean, they are some serious shoes to fill, and Larry is one of the greatest drummers of his era, so that’s in no doubt. But Bram is doing an incredible job, and I think everyone will be very happy when they get to see us live. The songs are sounding incredible, and it’s just so much fun to play them again. We just had a real blast in the rehearsal room.
Just to ask about spatial audio, you have a great interest in that and some of the demonstration was incredible. Is there anything that most specifically, from your point of view as a musician, that you think might be exciting to use in terms of the vast audio capabilities there?
Yeah. I mean, whenever you perform in an indoor arena or a stadium, you’re performing in a venue that’s been designed primarily for sports, so for basketball, ice hockey or football. So audio is always a very low priority in terms of the design spec. So the difference here is this building is designed to deliver optimal sound in a large venue. I would think it’s going to be the best-sounding venue ever built to date, for reasons that are to do with the preparation and the care with which the whole thing has been designed and installed. And what it gives us is the opportunity to do this immersive sound, which people are experiencing with their Atmos mixes and whatever, where you really are in the middle of the mix. You’re not actually just hearing it projected at you. It it is all around you. So from our point of view, we’re starting already to think about how our arrangements and the sonic spectrum could lend itself to these immersive mixes. And so that’s like a whole new kind of creative playpen which I’m personally very excited about.
But also it gives you the opportunity to do dynamic changes, from radically intimate moments, where you literally could hear Bono whispering as if he’s whispering in your ear, with just an acoustic guitar, possibly, and then full-bore rock ‘n’ roll arrangements, but sounding better than they have ever sounded. You know, this should be like recording studio balance and fidelity, compared to what’s always been the case in these sports venues, where there’s a gap between the intention and the result. You try to battle, try and get as close to your intention as possible, but you never can achieve it, because the venue is fighting you at all times, sonically. Where in this case, you’re not having to fight at all. It’s right there. Whatever you intend, you can deliver.
In terms of the grandiosity of this, U2 is a band that has always done well at the extremes, whether it’s trying to strip it down as much as possible or do the most technologically advanced, biggest thing possible. And I’m sure the irony is lost least of all on you, that this is a year where you just had an album where you strip everything down on your older songs, “Songs of Surrender” (which included new, mostly acoustic versions of 40 catalog songs), and now this is kind of the opposite of that in every way. It seems that you enjoy those extremes.
Absolutely. And right in the center of a contradiction is, I think, the most interesting place, if you can possibly balance the tension. So, I mean, we intend to try and create intimate moments in this venue — which we do… in every show we’ve ever done, we try to find that moment to break it down and really present ourselves in the most stripped-down possible way. So this will be no exception. But I think in this venue we’ll have the opportunity to really deliver on that. So, yeah, but I do… you’re right. We love that. We love those big shifts in dynamics, and that’s part of the U2 thing, to try and feel comfortable in the center of these contradictions.
Are you pleased with how “Songs of Surrender” came out and how it was received? Do you feel like the Sphere show will refer to that in any way?
Yeah, we’ll definitely be referencing the album. But this will still be a full rock ‘n’ roll show. It’s not “U2 Unplugged” or anything like that. I think it turned out great. You know, when we first started the project, it was more of an experiment. There was no expectation from record label or fans that this would be coming out. So we had the freedom to try and see what transpired from those experiments. And if we liked the direction, if we liked the results, we could release it. But if we didn’t like the results, we didn’t have to. So with that total freedom, we were just making the music for ourselves. And ultimately I think we had it in mind that this would be really a fan-centric release. You know, we didn’t expect to be making any new fans with this collection. But actually, we’ve had a lot of really, really positive responses from across the board, so we might surprise ourselves yet.
But yeah, to me it was just a labor of love to serve these songs and try and find versions of them that could be played at any time of day or night, rather than… You know, a lot of these early recordings were written and recorded by a band who are trying to win in the sort of gladiatorial context of an outdoor festival or a rock ‘n’ roll venue. So this was our way to say, “No, these songs, they can work in this other style altogether.” So I think it was great to see that that was the case.
Back to the Sphere, this could be considered kind of gladiatorial in a way, or at least you mentioned there was risk involved, and that maybe this was not like a day-one “yes.” So does it feel like at this point, yes, this is such a no-brainer, we can’t lose? Or does it still feel like you can imagine if something goes wrong, it’s like, “U2’s boondoggle in the desert” as a headline? Are you still like going, “OK, are we sure this is gonna work?” Or do you have this overwhelming confidence that you’re doing like the most amazing thing ever?
It’s always a bit of both. And if you got to the point where you were taking success for granted, that’s when you’re really setting yourself up for a land. So we’re far from fully secure, in that sense. But we are extremely inspired and excited. And I’ve no doubt that there’ll be some unforeseen qualities to the final show. Hopefully positive qualities — good things. But inevitably, you know, when you’re doing something for the very first time, as this is on multiple levels, there’s going to be surprises along the way. And I think we’re OK with that. You know, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It should feel a little dangerous. It should feel a little like there’s some jeopardy in the air.
It’s a little soon to jump ahead to 2024, but of course people wanna know about new albums and stuff, but it sounds like one thing we can probably say safely you’re not doing is a stripped-down version of this show to take on the road — that there’s not gonna be like the budget-level “Achtung Baby” tour next year or anything like that.
No, no. What we’re doing is, by necessity, exclusively for this venue. It just wouldn’t translate anywhere else. So yeah, that’s our intention is to just do it in the Sphere venue. But it doesn’t mean we’re giving up on touring. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t new material in the works. There’s a lot of new songs in the works, but there’s no plans just yet to release a new record. All of our focus is on this show, and it’ll be a little while before we think about a touring show. But yeah, we’ll be on the road at some point in the near future.
Going back to how long this run might last, you’re putting up five dates, which seems incredibly sort of underwhelming, once you see the setup, that it could possibly be something that short. So you mentioned six weeks as a possibility. People will be hoping there are more dates — do you think that’s something that they can hope for?
We’ll see. I mean, I would love to think there would be some more, but we’re not… You know, we’re hoping people want to come and see us, but we’re not taking anything for granted.