There’s been a lot of talk about U2’s residency at The Sphere—maybe too much talk. Since the September 2023 debut of U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere, the show has been hailed as a musical and technological feat unlike any other live music experience. So, why should you read yet another review? Well, I’m not a music journalist. I’m not a critic. I’m just a guy who really, really, really—unapologetically and unabashedly—loves U2.
As the band returns for a second run of shows at the venue—and with four final shows just announced—here are my five favorite moments from this incomparable Vegas residency.
Cutting through the Noise on “The Fly”
The band opens the set with “Zoo Station,” the album opener on Achtung Baby, the revolutionary album that The Sphere residency celebrates. The Sphere appears to crack open and let in a blinding light as Bono sings, “I’m ready for what’s next.” I’m already experiencing sensory overload as 20,000 people—including me and my sister, Ellen Carpenter (who happens to be the editor of Hemispheres)—scream at the top of their lungs.
Ellen and I grew up in West Kentucky, but now live thousands of miles away from each other. We’ve been in Vegas for 24 hours, and now my favorite rock ‘n’ roll band is playing the opening track of my favorite album. It takes me a minute to take it all in (or about six minutes, to be exact—the length of the song).
Then, The Edge starts to play the piercing riff on “The Fly.”
I love “The Fly.” Bono has been quoted as saying Achtung Baby is the sound of four men cutting down The Joshua Tree. Since “The Fly” was the first single off the album, I think of it—more than any other track—as the actual chainsaw. I can remember exactly where I was (in the basement of my childhood home in Murray, Kentucky) when I heard it for the first time, and I remember thinking it was the sound of the future. It’s still my favorite song on Achtung Baby and a Top Five U2 song for me.
It does not disappoint live at The Sphere, a venue that manages to make songs like “The Fly” even bigger. The screen fills with numbers and letters in constant motion, a blur of words and images paying homage to the Zoo TV Tour. During The Edge’s solo, it feels as if the cascade of characters will collapse on the audience.
The Edge Claps for Us
Our show is marred by technical difficulties. At one point, the crew encourages Bono to leave the stage so they can fix the sound problems that have plagued the first eight songs. The constant feedback and uneven mixes (plus what appear to be monitor issues) are coming to a head. We can hear Bono’s side of the conversation as a crew member walks him to the upstage stairs. “I’m not ready to leave…” he says. “I don’t care if they are having problems with the console. Can we sing one more tune, at least?” Meanwhile, The Edge plays a new melody on an organ created for the band’s Songs of Surrender re-recording project.
In hindsight, it all seems a bit theatrical. The Edge plays this Wonka-esque, six-note line. Bono channels his inner James Brown and refuses to leave the stage. In the moment, I really think our show is going to end early.
Fortunately, Bono wins the debate. (I bet Bono wins a lot of debates). The show goes on, but as he starts to sing, the sound issues rear their ugly head again. So, he turns the microphone over to us, and we sing “All I Want Is You” for him. The song has had an interesting journey, playing over the credits of the much derided Rattle and Hum (whatever, I love it), and peaking at number No. 83 on the Billboard Hot 100. But it was, from the very start, beloved by die-hard fans. It’s one of the great singalongs in the band’s repertoire—which is really saying something—and it’s electric at The Sphere.
At the end, the band breaks into Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” Bono encourages the crowd to sing the “do do do” refrain, interjecting, “On a Saturday night…when The Sphere is broken down!” and cracking the rest of the band up. We sing, and The Edge takes the high harmony. Then, Bono cues us all to finish. When we do, The Edge claps—twice—applauding both his band and his audience.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
The band plays all twelve songs from Achtung Baby, taking a break after the first eight. This little break usually consists of four songs. The original plan was to highlight a different album or era with the mini-set, but just about every show has featured songs from Rattle and Hum. At our show, after “All I Want Is You,” the band plays lackluster versions of “Desire” and “When Love Comes To Town,” battling sound issues the entire time. Instead of launching into their pre-planned fourth song, they pivot and play a stripped down version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono turns to the audience and suggests, “Maybe you’ll sing it for us.” Turning to residency drummer Bram van den Berg, he says, “Keep us in time.” We sing, Bram taps a tambourine, and it’s beautiful. After the second chorus, Bono adds, “Take me to church… We’re a Saturday night, Sunday morning kind of band.” I don’t know if there’s ever been a better description of U2.
My sister and I had a conversation before the show about which songs we hoped they would play and which songs we were okay with not hearing. We knew they’d play all the Achtung songs, and having regrettably missed 2017’s Joshua Tree anniversary tour, I mentioned wanting to hear some of the songs and B-sides on that album: “Trip Through Your Wires,” “One Tree Hill,” “Red Hill Mining Town.” I did not think I needed to hear “I Still Haven’t Found…,” having heard it at every U2 show I’ve been to. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. The stripped-down version is even more powerful than the versions I’ve heard prior to this show.
The highlight of the performance comes at the very end, though, when Bono seamlessly throws in the chorus of Primal Scream’s “Movin’ On Up,” the first track on the band’s brilliant Screamadelica. I bought both Screamadelica and The Joshua Tree with money earned mowing lawns in the hot Western Kentucky summers. I say a little “thank you” to teenage me for buying the albums instead of blowing the money on baseball cards and candy bars.
Out of the Darkness with “Ultraviolet”
After a somber “Love Rescue Me” (featuring The Edge on bass!), the band gets word that the sound problems have been resolved. They respond with a blistering “Acrobat” before pulling on the reins with “So Cruel.” I can’t help but feel like the band has been bowling with bumpers; a little unsure. The stop/start set has made us all a little reticent about committing ourselves again. The Sphere isn’t helping—going dark for long periods makes the biggest band in the world seem small. Bono has tried desperately to engage the crowd, but he looks a bit like Lear howling at the storm.
Fittingly, a song about finding your way through the darkness reunites the band with the audience. If Achtung Baby is, as some believe, a concept album about fidelity, exploration, and freedom—about a guy going out into the world, hitting rock bottom, and trying to find his way home—then “Ultraviolet” is both the acceptance of the abyss and the gift of hope. Plus, you can dance to it! The sound is finally perfect—bumpers off!—and The Sphere accentuates the music rather than overshadowing it. Pulses of light explode from behind the band, each one prompting “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd.
Encore: “Where the Streets Have No Name”
The encore is fantastic. Full stop. Two songs I’ve never particularly cared for, “Elevation” and “Vertigo,” are solid 10 out of 10s at The Sphere. The band’s new song, “Atomic City,” sounds like U2 channeling Blondie by way of “Vertigo.” The band seems genuinely excited to see the new material come alive at this venue. Then, a synthesizer signals the intro of “Where the Streets Have No Name” as The Sphere appears to transform into the Vegas desert. To quote a younger Bono, “I believe in the church of rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s nothing short of a religious experience, and I can’t control the tears. (For the record, it’s the sixth time I’ve teared up.)
Nearly 40 years in, Bono still understands the weight of the song. He falls to the floor and sings a few bars from “Moment of Surrender,” off 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, as The Edge’s guitar came in. Adam Clayton’s driving bass line joins in. Then, Bram’s toms. Finally, the cymbals crash as the band lifts us higher and higher—together. 20,000 people. Me. My sister. And the greatest band of all time.