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satellite of love: U2 at the Sphere
ready for the gridlock
THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS ESSAY.
I wrote about this show for NPR, and made a conscious effort to not duplicate between here and there. So you have to read both of them!
You know you are obsessed with a song when your brain wills it into existence. In Las Vegas last week, Bono namedropped Bob Dylan while introducing the next song -- “we wrote this with him” -- and my brain immediately blows a fuse and tells me HAWKMOON 269 which of course is incorrect. Dylan plays the Hammond B3 on “Hawkmoon 269” which is not the same thing as co-writing. I think of the interview Benmont Tench gave to Ray Padgett for his great book on Dylan band members and how Benmont said “He should always play piano if he wrote it on piano, because he’s a very cool piano player.” But honestly, this is a selfish desire, I just want to hear the fucking song, to the point where I went on a calculated social media firestorm when U2 played the Apollo -- “call Dylan. Go rent a B3” etc. It did not help, but I did get to see U2 at the Apollo and I did get the Sun Ra Arkestra descending from the heavens on “Angel of Harlem.” I’ll remember that for the rest of my life, but it’s not “Hawkmoon 269.”
When I went to Wyoming for a work trip in 2018, I came in two days early to go see the land art of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels. This required driving through the desert and being warned about snakes at rest areas and walking out on the Bonneville Salt Flats, the literal rattlesnake speedway in a Utah desert. There was nowhere to just pull off on the way back to Salt Lake City so I just told my phone to “play U2 Joshua Tree,” because the shows were coming up and I was not prepared for them, and what the phone did was loop me through Rattle and Hum and Joshua Tree outtakes instead, things leftover from the assignment where I had to review and rank U2’s entire officially released catalog. “Hawkmoon 269” on a loop driving through the desert is religion. U2 have only played the song in full nine times. It is not a thing I am ever going to hear live. The song we did get, which they did write with Bob Dylan (the actual story is even more delightful) was “Love Rescue Me” which I had never heard performed live. It was one of those moments where you felt so very rooted to the ground, so very HERE, but also felt the weight of everything that song means to you in your life.
Hearing certain songs, and certain riffs or vocal lines or guitar solos played live was the thing that went through my head watching U2 onstage at the Sphere two weeks ago. Yes, I went to Las Vegas and the Sphere to see this current U2 multimedia art project despite saying that I had zero interest in watching U2 without Larry Mullen Jr. (Do I contradict myself? etc) I also went to the last place in the world I am interested in visiting when there is still a long list of places I have not seen yet, and tried to get in and out of the place while enacting the least amount of psychic damage possible. I walked 20,000 steps on show day: get up and go get an early GA wristband. Walk back to the Strip for breakfast. Walk up and traipse through the stupid canals at the Venetian to see the Zoo Station pop-up shop. Walk back to the hotel and try to take a nap. Try to get a taxi back to the Sphere only to find out that no cabs or rideshare want to go near it because there’s a show. Speedwalk back to the Sphere. Stand for four and a half hours. Walk back to the hotel afterwards. I didn’t actually do anything in Vegas and yet I have never been so exhausted after a show. That is jet lag and it is also the vast physical and emotional scope of this particular performance, which is profound at a level that I don’t think the band quite realizes. they can’t watch it and experience it as we do so there’s no way they can know what the impact is.
Whatever mainstream promotion J—s D—n has done for the Sphere has been supremely effective: as my flight began its landing approach into Las Vegas the occupants began exclaiming over the bright light city (to crib from Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman) and what was overheard more than anything else was commentary about the Sphere, in its emoji incarnation, bright orange and making faces, smiling and frowning and rolling its eyes. My seatmates took photos; the row behind us discussed that while they weren’t going to attend anything at the Sphere, they definitely planned to go check it out, while other passengers expressed disappointment that they couldn’t see it. Considering that all there is to see is a large illuminated ball adjacent to empty asphalt lots and an employee parking garage and it requires 20 minutes’ walking from the closest hotel, it is yet another chapter in the version of the American success myth of “build it and they will come.” In a line that got edited out of my NPR essay, I called it a benevolent behemoth. I still think it is so incredibly dumb.
I do not like Las Vegas. I have been there many times, I once won $250 playing $2 craps at Slots-O-Fun when they still had human dealers. I know where things generally are and I know how to navigate the casinos, but jesus h christ why the hell are you making me do all of this just to see a fucking concert. I just want to get on public transportation and go to the show and then go home. Literally every single restaurant had interminable waits, every fast food place had a line out the door, and even if you were willing to take a chance with, say, paying $11.99 for a Walgreens chicken salad sandwich on a croissant (I didn’t because I couldn’t chance getting sick), there would probably not have been any left. Don’t say “well it’s your fault for not making reservations!” because you can only make reservations for fancy expensive restaurants if you know what your day is going to be like, exactly. Or if you have endless flexibility, if you are here to see “the U2” (as my cab driver put it) because it’s Wednesday night in Las Vegas.
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My GA number was 452 and that seemed high for 10 a.m., but I wanted to be in 400-500 based on what the intel on this subject would get me (the back rail), so I was grudgingly satisfied. The two expensively dressed women in front of me at the wristband pickup needed to argue about why they couldn’t just take six wristbands when there were six of them and they had to enter together because the tickets couldn’t be transferred. This is probably why I did not get correct instructions, I was told to return at 5:30 but when I arrived and tried to get into the queue at 5:32pm I was told I was “too late.” I ignored all of those people. I know the band did the floor GA to make tickets affordable and to not have rows of cigar smoking fat cats being drunk at them all night1 but in my opinion it is not worth the amount of extreme effort it requires to be in GA for this show.* I should note that my intel since I wrote this draft has indicated that I was just there on a bad night, that the midweek nights are not good nights because of the freebies given out to convention attendees (which a dear friend dubbed “conventioneers”). This absolutely tracks to the people standing in front of me.
Let us now discuss Zoo Station. This thing exists to sell merch and to have some kind of private lounge for the VIP people, but because it’s a Live Nation jawn, it is an “IMMERSIVE FAN PORTAL” developed by the VIP experience company “in collaboration with Gavin Friday and with direct input from the band” (emphasis mine). I would not be so quick to have my name on this exhibit, guys. It was very Instagrammable but also very lightweight and lacking in substance for something that has U2’s name on it. It isn’t a Trabant that was used on ZooTV. There aren’t handwritten lyrics, or posters, or artifacts from previous tours. Everything in the room is something created for this “experience2” so there’s none of the emotional resonance you can experience at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or even (to keep things local) the Punk Rock Museum located elsewhere off the Strip.
If you don’t know who Anton Corbijn is or why there are people waiting in line to have their photograph taken in a cute little car you are going to shrug and get on the line to buy merch. The Corbijn exhibit is five video monitors with photos that fade in and out. There’s a photo booth, that harkens back to the video confessional that was another one of those crazy “yes and” ideas from ZooTV, a video booth at the back of the floor that you could go into and disabuse yourself of your sins or secrets or just say hi to mom or propose to your girlfriend. But if you don’t know that you don’t know it. There’s a “b stage” with instruments that you get your picture taken in front of but it’s not anything particularly U2 about it? It could be anyone’s stage setup. I refused to do that one but was happy to do the other things because there wasn’t a line. I also did not engage in the exhibit that allows you to “graffiti” a “Trabant” because I was not waiting to do wait however long it would have took for me to get a turn and all I would have done is written LMJ LIVES.
The people near me in the queue to get into the show were from New York, Nashville, a bunch of South Americans, and then the middle-aged guys drunkenly singing “Sweet Caroline” like we were at Fenway Park. (I blame them for holding up an Irish flag blocking my view towards the end of the show.) There were two scanners at two doors and it did not go smoothly, especially when people had multiple tickets to scan. You have your bag checked and go through some security-related scanner that was similar to what you walked through at the first run of Springsteen on Broadway, and I was glad I was wearing a mask for many reasons, but mostly to not participate in Dolan’s much-vaunted facial identification technology, which he uses to keep people who he doesn’t like out of his venues.
The GA floor is small. The math indicates that it’s not holding more than 3,500 people but it feels more crowded than that. You would think that on a floor where there are no speakers blocking your view that you’d have more choices, but I think that confused people more than liberated them. I didn’t see many people try to be more creative with their choices — then again I didn’t either, but that was because I felt like I had reasonable intel that the back center rail was a good place to see both the band and the visuals, and I didn’t want to make a different decision that would put me in a less good place for a show I had spent ridiculous sums of money to be at, and I literally did this excursion as cheaply as I could manage.
In the week leading to opening night, U2 announced that there would be a Special! Surprise! There would be a DJ before the shows every night! As U2songs.com reported, “Gavin [Friday] called the opening act an “Ultra Violet DJ” and called it a “UV Dance Party” and suggested the girls should “bring out your UV paint!” It felt like such a disjointed u-turn that I didn’t understand the motivation, and then after having had to sit through it, I understand it even less. The hour we had to spend listening to Pauli The PSM Lovejoy was not a necessary or enjoyable element. He was annoying! My friend B. keeps telling me that she likes how it’s a throwback to ZooTV when the band installed absolute legend BP Fallon in a Trabant above the stage playing music. First of all,BP Fallon is BP Fallon. Second of all, his DJ set did not drive across the already-packed out GA floor and annoyingly demand our attention to a set I described to a friend as “Gen X DJ Khaled.” I do not ever want to hear Bon Jovi before any concert and I definitely don’t want to hear “Living On A Prayer” in a mash-up with “Seven Nation Army.” As B. snarked to me, there are few things more likely to get 60 year old white men out of their seats than Bon Jovi. I am sure he was great for Harry Styles. This scenario did not add to the experience. I would actually pay more to not have to go through it. Also? I can dance to “Atomic” by Blondie like nobody’s business, but you can’t dance on a GA floor that’s jam packed and you have even less room to dance in the seating bowl in this building.
IT’S WEDNESDAY IN LAS VEGAS AT THE SPHERE, MAKE SOME NOISE
This is not a thing. Stop trying to make it a thing.
My other annoyance with this DJ set is how they transition out from it into the actual show. DJ Pauli says “Okay I’m going now,” and his little fake Trabant keeps moving across the floor, except that I cannot easily see it from where I’m standing so when I hear “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and then “Battle Hymn of the Republic” I think, “Oh wow, U2 are paying tribute to the Presley shows because he used those songs” but then nothing happens onstage and I realize DJ Pauli is still over to my right somewhere. Then I hear “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones and you know, I should be forgiven for thinking that this might actually be U2’s intro music — but no. They play a “Lemon” remix, the only Zooropa reference the entire night, and then they are just kind of onstage and it felt like we were entitled and deserved a bigger ENTRANCE from U2 in LAS VEGAS.
The reason that it matters is that the crowd needs a second to center themselves and be ready for the show, or at least know when to hold up their iPhones. I’m not kidding. I’m not asking for a curtain to drop or for an emcee but, you know, there’s a reason superior showmen to U2 used those devices. And especially in this dopamine-powered constantly-distracted world we live in, give people a minute to get ready for this record and these songs. Either you’ve never heard them before or you haven’t heard them for a very long time. I also wish there was a way for them to better emphasize / integrate the ceremony of Bono donning the now infamous bubble-eyed sunglasses that are the device that turns him into the Fly, one of several characters who appear during the course of the Achtung Baby story. He does it far stage left and you’d miss it if you weren’t watching for it because so much else is going on. That’s why they need a cleaner signifier that The Show Is Starting.
These are hard songs to sing, emotionally, vibrationally. Bono’s voice sounds fantastic but it’s not the range that you need to worry about here, it’s whether or not you believe him, whether you still feel what they felt when they wrote the songs, that moment that almost felt like the end before it became the beginning. The album isn’t performed in order and that absolutely makes sense because the concerns you have with sequencing an album are not identical to sequencing a live show. But also, there is precedent, because the first six songs of the set are identical to the first six songs of the set when I saw ZooTV at Wembley Stadium in 1993. Knowing U2 they probably tried other configurations before someone had the good sense to just go back to what they knew worked.
Things the Sphere’s technology can’t help you with: the random dudes having their random conversations during quiet(er) songs they don’t know, like “Love Rescue Me” or “Love Is Blindness.” I used to try to politely ask these folks to please not talk, but “I’ve never heard them do this song before” doesn’t have the impact on these kinds of people that you want it to, and in fact makes them more resolved to exercise their right to do whatever they want whenever they want. My method of dealing with these people is to now sing as loudly as I can. Preferably directly into their left ear. But I would have flown 3000 miles just to hear the Edge’s solo on “Love Is Blindness” because it is laser-focused and feels like he has just invented it. Nothing could have ruined that moment. His work on “Acrobat” was liquid gold and I wanted to stretch out my arms and spin like I was at a Grateful Dead show. Bono’s voice is phenomenal. I kept taking my earplugs out because there were certain moments I wanted to hear without a filter, that “come on now love/don’t you look back” at the end of the bridge of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” the last verse of “Acrobat,” the entirety of “Until The End of the World.” The beauty of this speaker-dome is that the sound envelops you instead of physically pummeling you in the center of your chest. I don’t know if this is actually true from a physics perspective, but I also do not care because that was how it felt.
I did not see any of the interior of the Sphere because I walked in and went through a tunnel and then basically did not move. The lighting is the kind of cool dimness you see in expensive places; there were large bars right behind GA (so exciting that we got to keep our water bottle caps!!) as well as servers who made their way through the crowd. (I do not need to be asked if I want a drink at the beginning of “Where The Streets Have No Name.”) This is also one of the first venues I have been to where I walked into the ladies’ room and thought, there will never ever be a line3. I also did not take very many photos of this show. I think the main reason was that I was trying to focus on the entirety of the whole thing and trying to take good notes and it’s hard to deal with juggling your phone and a notebook/pen and the tiny sliver of a bag I bought to deal with bagless venues doesn’t make it simple to tuck one item away and then grab it as soon as you need it. I also stubbornly do not want to pay too much attention to the multimedia, I want to make sure I am focusing on the rock and roll part of this rock and roll concert. On the flip side, the visuals for “Streets” made me want to go back to the desert more than anything, and I didn’t find anything in the visuals too distracting. But I am also old and stubborn and have many years of training myself to keep my eyes on the stage.
I am going back for the end of the run, bringing a good friend to see the last show, doing GA one more time because that’s what they gave me and I hope I will be able to be smarter about it all this time. The Rattle and Hum set expanded recently, but even if I see the exact show I already saw, I know it will be worth it and I know the experience will not be the same. The Sphere residency will undoubtedly assume a large space in U2’s history but it shouldn’t, it should be a footnote, or at least not larger than the entire body of work or the fact that they’ve survived so far with their original lineup or they once paid for a giant lemon to drive out onto their stage that had a DON’T LIKE MY DRIVING? CALL 1-800-EAT-SHIT bumpersticker on it.
Maybe someone can get one and put it on the Sphere. Who’s got Gavin Friday’s phone number?
IT’S POETIC LICENSE
Before someone tells me that X artifact did, indeed, have some kind of actual provenance, the fact that someone like me didn’t know that because there was nothing to tell me that is part of the problem with this bullshit
(This should not actually be a thing we applaud, it should be standard, but it isn’t so I am noting it.)