For several years a mysterious spherical structure has been rising on the skyline of this desert playground, teasing visitors in recent months with its wraparound LED screen transforming the giant orb into a planet, a basketball, or — most distractingly — a blinking eyeball.
Now, finally, we get to go inside.
Sphere, the $2.3 billion venture being billed as the entertainment venue of the future, made its public debut this weekend with two concerts by U2.
Does Sphere live up to the hype? Are the interior visuals as eye-popping as the ones outside? Is U2, the beloved Irish band now in the latter stage of their career, the right act to christen this arena the size of a small planet?
Yes, yes, and yes – with a few caveats.
Describing the Sphere concert experience is a challenge, because there’s nothing quite like it. The effect is a little like being in a giant planetarium, a juiced-up IMAX theater or maybe VR without the headset.
Built by Madison Square Garden Entertainment, Sphere is being billed as the world’s largest spherical structure. At 366 feet tall and 516 feet wide, the partially hollow arena could fit the entire Statue of Liberty, base to torch, comfortably inside.
Its cavernous, bowl-shaped theater contains a stage at the bottom level, flanked by what is reportedly the world’s largest and highest-resolution LED screen. The screen wraps up and around the audience members, and depending on the location of your seat, it can fill your entire field of vision.
In today’s multimedia entertainment world, overused buzzwords like “immersive” get thrown around a lot. But Sphere’s vast screen and pristine sound truly earn that label.
I interviewed a handful of audience members after the show and they all raved about the venue.
“It’s an overwhelming experience visually … it was mind-boggling,” said Dave Zittig, who traveled with his wife Tracy from Salt Lake City for Saturday night’s show. “And they picked the right band to open it with. We’ve been to concerts around the world, and this is the coolest venue we’ve been to.”
A spectacle, inside and out
The venue’s inaugural offering is called “U2: UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere,” a series of 25 concerts built around the Irish band’s landmark 1991 album “Achtung Baby” and running through mid-December. Most of the shows are sold out, despite prices of $400-$500 for the best seats.
The show launched Friday night with an avalanche of buzz and a red-carpet premiere attended by Paul McCartney, Oprah, Snoop Dogg, Jeff Bezos and dozens of other celebrities – some of them probably wondering how they can book their own Sphere gigs.
Friday brings the premiere of “Postcard From Earth,” a film by Darren Aronofsky that promises to take full advantage of Sphere’s enormous screen by offering viewers a, yes, immersive tour of the planet. And more concerts will be coming in 2024, although no artists have been announced. (Someone is probably already courting Taylor Swift.)
Visitors can walk through alleys and across parking lots to reach Sphere, just east of the Strip, although the easiest way is through a pedestrian walkway from the Venetian resort, a partner in the venture.
Once inside you’ll encounter a high-ceilinged atrium with hanging sculptural mobiles and long escalators leading to the upper levels. But the real draw is the theater and its wraparound LED canvas, which boasts 268 million video pixels. That sounds like a lot.
The screen is impressive, and so dominant that it sometimes overwhelms the live performers. At times I didn’t know where to look — at the band playing live before me or at the dazzling visuals going on everywhere else.
Your idea of the ideal seat will depend on how much you want to see the artist up close. The 200 and 300 levels are at eye level with the center of the massive screen, while seats in the lowest level will be closer to the stage but may have you craning your neck to look up. And be warned: Some seats in the rear of the lowest section have obstructed views.
The giant LED screen conjures both spectacle and intimacy
The venerable band – Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and guest drummer Bram van den Berg, filling in for Larry Mullen Jr., who is recovering from surgery – sounded as passionate as ever, moving nimbly from propulsive rockers (“Even Better Than the Real Thing”) to tender ballads (“One”) and beyond.
U2 retains a huge loyal following, writes grandiose songs and has long pushed the boundaries of technology – notably on their Zoo TV tour – making them a natural fit for a pioneering venue like Sphere.
The band performed on a simple stage built like a turntable, with the four musicians mostly rooted in the circular platter, although Bono roamed around the fringes. Almost every song came with animations and live footage on the enormous screen.
Bono seemed to embrace the Sphere’s trippy visuals, saying, “This whole place feels like a distortion pedal for the mind.”
The wraparound screen conjured both scale and intimacy, as when Bono, The Edge and other band members appeared in 80-foot-high video images projected above the stage.
Sphere’s producers promised state-of-the-art sound, thanks to thousands of speakers embedded throughout the venue, and it did not disappoint. At some concerts the sound is so muddy you can’t decipher the performers’ stage patter, but Bono’s words were crisp and clear, and the band’s volume never felt strenuous or weak.
“I go to a lot of concerts and I usually wear earplugs, but I didn’t need them for this one,” said Rob Rich, who flew in from Chicago with a buddy for the show. “It was so immersive,” he added (there’s that word again). “I’ve seen U2 eight times. And this is the standard now.”
Midway through the show the band departed from “Achtung Baby” to do an acoustic set of songs from “Rattle and Hum.” The visuals became simpler, and the stripped-down songs yielded some of the night’s best moments – a reminder that while bells and whistles are nice, great live music is enough on its own.
Saturday’s show was only Sphere’s second public event, and they are still working out some bugs. The band started about a half an hour late – Bono blamed “technical issues” – and at one point the LED screen seemed to malfunction, freezing on one image for a few minutes over multiple songs.
But more often, the visuals were spectacular. At one point during “The Fly” the screen created a dramatic optical illusion that the venue’s ceiling was descending towards the audience. For “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” a real-life rope was lowered from the ceiling and connected to a virtual balloon high overhead.
And “Where the Streets Have No Name” brought a sweeping time-lapse video of the Nevada desert, complete with the sun migrating across the sky overhead. For a few minutes it felt like we were outside.
The curmudgeon in me has some skepticism about Sphere. Tickets are not cheap. Its mammoth interior screen threatened to swallow up the band, who looked pretty tiny from the venue’s upper levels. And the audience’s energy at times seemed strangely muted, as if people were too enraptured by the visuals to actually cheer the performers.
But the kid in me was totally enthralled.
Sphere is an expensive gamble, and it remains to be seen whether other artists can make such creative use of its unique space. But the venue is off to a promising start. If they can keep it up, we may be witnessing the future of live performance.