Wanders with Wit

Sphere and Coping in Las Vegas

Surrendering to the sensational on Southern Paiute country, Nevada, USA
External view of the Sphere, Las Vegas
The enigmatic exosphere
World’s biggest technically advanced spherical building meets world’s most tech-reluctant, old-school girl.
When U2, my favourite band in the stratosphere, announced they were celebrating the 30th anniversary of their glorious album Achtung Baby with a run of shows at the brand-new Sphere in Las Vegas (a city I’ve had zero interest in ever visiting, by the way) it was Game On! Australia had already missed out on U2’s extraordinary Innocence and Experience tour and, more recently, Bono’s solo Stories of Surrender book tour. There ain’t no way I was missing out on seeing U2:UV Achtung Baby Live as well, thank you very much. (Even if it meant having no life and living on lentils for months – no thanks to the very low Australian versus US dollar at the time – or pretty much any time.)
Your Ticket Request is Confirmed! You're going to see U2.
After reading those prophetic words, I went into split-pea-induced shock knowing how extremely lucky I was to a) even afford a ticket, let alone an international flight to get there and, b) actually score a ticket considering so many long-time fans missed out. (A million people registered for the presale alone!)
Hurdle #2 was figuring out the @#$% compulsory technology that insisted some revolutionary new digital ticket with a constantly changing barcode be used for entry into the concert. So it was goodbye carrier pigeons and paper tickets, and hello to spending hours trying to configure everything on a phone I borrowed for the occasion; the operating system of which was so primordial, it refused to download any kind of essential, or even superfluous, apps.
In a little while, I was on my way.
“Unfortunately no, we don’t offer maps anymore,” the rental car guy at Las Vegas informed me after I was shocked to discover international airports no longer sold newspapers either.
“Oh that’s fine, I’ll just figure out how to use the in-built GPS in the hire car then.”
His shifty eye contact spoke volumes. Fortunately, before I’d left Australia, I’d diligently handwritten out any possible driving directions I’d need around Las Vegas, just in case.
“What the @#$%!!!”
My first introduction to the Paradise of Sin City was in garrulously gridlocked streets of unrelenting traffic jams due to a major event happening for the evening (that wasn’t U2), instantly relegating my hard-to-read-in-the-dark instructions obsolete.
“Oh my goodness, it’s the Sphere!!!!!” I exclaimed excitedly from the driver’s seat, mesmerised by the brilliantly coloured paint-like motion graphics on the giant ball’s curvy exterior before THWACK! I hit a traffic cone as I navigated driving on the wrong side of the road, at night, in the wrong direction, as I dodged hundreds of pedestrians, whilst remembering to turn right at every red light (even when I didn’t want to), and used the windscreen wipers to change lanes. When my hotel finally appeared, I couldn’t have checked in fast enough.
I’d purposefully booked accommodation as close to the Sphere and adjoining Venetian Resort as I could – since the international food court of the latter housed the only gluten-free, vegetarian, budget-friendly food I could pretty much find in the entire state of Nevada: Chipotle.
Exterior entrance to The Venetian, Las Vegas Replica Rialto Bridge outside The Venetian
Fancy facade & Italian icon
“Wooh!!” Up and down I went on the escalator that hugged the contours of the replica Rialto Bridge that led straight into the voluptuous Venetian.
After wandering wantonly through the Grand Canal Shoppes, past copious bars, restaurants, art installations and casinos for what felt like days – blatantly unaware that The Palazzo/Venetian was, in fact, merely the second largest hotel complex in the entire WORLD – I unintentionally discovered both floors of Zoo Station, the pop-up U2 museum designed in conjunction with the Sphere which was, of course, closed by the time I got there.
Finally, amidst gondolas ferrying passengers under a painted cloudy sky, I found Chipotle and was cheerfully served a gargantuan, gluten-free, vegetarian burrito bowl that was almost a tourist attraction in itself.
Zoo Station logo on window of U2 Museum
Staring At The Sign
“Excuse me?!” I woke up the next day dishevelled and disorientated as booming accents floated down the corridors. That’s right, gosh darn it, I was in America! After a cold Chipotle breakfast (I didn’t find the hotel’s thoughtfully provided communal microwaves until the following day), I made a beeline straight to the U2 museum. In the interactive open-plan first floor, I was instantly captivated by the beautiful, iconic, changing, digital black-and-white photographs of the band captured by Anton Corbijn over the past five decades.


Morphing black and white images of Bono by Anton Corbijn
A bounty of Bonos by Anton Corbijn
“Would you like to sit inside? I can a take a photo for you.” A museum staff member ushered me towards a light-blue vintage Trabant – the iconic East German car U2 kept seeing when they recorded Achtung Baby in Berlin. (Trabants featured cheekily in their Zoo TV concert tour, too.) On the bonnet was the cute little space dude illustration known affectionately as “astro" or "space baby” from the band’s Zooropa album.
Light-blue vintage trabant in U2 museum with space baby logo on bonnet
Not a Lemon in sight
Prior to the run of concerts in Vegas, there had been talk online about fans meeting up before each Sphere show, going to see U2 tribute bands (where Bono could walk in at any moment) and even heading out to the Joshua Tree National Park in California (where The Joshua Tree album cover was shot). It would have been great meeting up with an international cohort of like-minded new friends, attending exclusive film screenings in the museum and laughing over anecdotes in the adjoining Fly Bar – even potentially having a sneaky meet-and-greet with the band somewhere.
Unfortunately, the museum’s second floor containing said Fly Bar, Zoo TV Cinema and exclusive Ultra Violet Lounge were closed being a non-show day, and it was too clunky constantly going online on my cumbersome, brick-sized phone to see what fan fun I was missing out on. (Plus, I figured, most of it would have been on social media anyway.)
After passing by a giant satellite, over by the back wall of the museum was a B stage where fans could rock out on real instruments, alongside a photo booth that I assumed, once again, people needed some kind of social media thingy for. (The same went for the infamous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign I visited – and refused to queue for – that, if you knew how to wrangle your hashtags correctly, would instantly elevate your uploaded photo into some kind of magical U2-esque masterpiece or something.)
Welcome to Las Vegas sign
Welcome to Las Vegas sign with computer-generated artwork by the author
Before and after #authorsimpressionofu2uvwelcometolasvegas
In the adjoining pop-up merchandise store, I became instantly smitten by the astro baby space dude printed on various items, as well as vibrant carry bags and T-shirts that lit up in the provided UV light. I didn’t want to rush any purchases, so I vowed to return after I got the tourist thing out of my system.


Brightly coloured space baby logo printed on black shirt
Merch of Blinding Delight
For the next couple of hours, I strode purposefully up the Strip. Despite the dehydrating desert heat, thanks to the jubilant music being piped inside and out every grandiose hotel foyer, casino and garden, I became quickly seduced by the surreal, decadent, giant-sized play world around me and didn’t realise that 90 percent of the Strip was, in fact, in the opposite direction. As I passed barren vacant lots, I didn’t stop to wonder why there was no one around when there was usually, at a conservative estimate, thousands of tourists clogging the sidewalks every afternoon.
After a quick course correction and darting back into the U2 museum to purchase my very own space baby tote bag, I threw myself at every colossal tourist attraction that would have me, before becoming increasingly perplexed – and cranky – as to why so many of the footpaths were closed (thank you, Formula 1), forcing pedestrians to walk miles into every behemoth of a casino via their adjoining footbridges just to find a) a toilet, b) a drinking fountain and, c) the exit.
Magical fairy garden with giant toadstools and flowers in foyer of The Bellagio, Las Vegas
Hot air balloon & Paris signage with digital display outside Paris-Las Vegas  HotelSignage on footpath for Crystal Skull Shop
Giant replica Sphinx outside Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas
Some Sights Are Bigger Than Others
By then it was early evening and what was left of the sidewalks were heaving with holidaymakers, loud music and showgirls on a street of amplified decadence so bright – and not just from all the Gordon Ramsay restaurants – it could be seen from space. (Space baby not included.)
To distract myself from the fact that I was one night away from having the absolute night of my life, I poured all the money I’d saved from avoiding gluten into a ticket to the extremely loud Cirque du Soleil Beatles show – mostly because it was located very close to where I was staying and I didn’t have to battle colossal crowds to get there, plus the fabulous Paul McCartney had been a guest at U2’s recent opening night, so returning the love was the least I could do.


Large rock by side of highway welcoming visitors to Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
In God's Country
“Do you follow Jesus this close?” asked the number plate on the car in front of me.
Finally, it was the day of the concert. Both floors of the U2 museum were actually open for business but I was still so on edge from the previous day’s shenanigans, my nerves and I couldn’t wait around to watch a doco about The Edge, so we fled to the sanctity - and hopeful serenity - of the Red Rock Canyon west of Vegas; a place:
  • where people drive 8 miles per hour in a 35 mile zone;
  • where you have to look under your car at every stunning stop to make sure you don’t squash any tortoises;
  • where you become so grateful that the gift shop sells gluten-free protein bars that end up becoming your lunch;
  • where a woman shrieks at the thought of meeting any of the docile resident tarantulas on any of the 26 extensive hiking trails;
  • where you accidentally run out of water after realising you’ve also worn the wrong shoes;
  • where a young tourist proudly chisels her name into a wooden paling at one of the charming lookouts like a vainglorious skunk leaving its calling card;
  • where you spend so long admiring the geography along the 13-mile scenic drive and hiking to see petroglyphs in the scorching desert heat that you’re too stuffed to explore the last canyon that seems the most magical of all;
  • where you have to push in front of cars at the main entrance to beg the ranger to fill up your water bottles so you don’t pass out from heat stroke; and
  • where you give yourself a high five for inadvertently finding a clump of Joshua tree-looking Joshua trees that turn out to be actual Joshua trees!
Car ark sign cautioning about desert tortoises
Trail leading to Calico Rocks, Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
Black and white close-up of a Joshua tree in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
Views With Or Without Shoes
Boy, was I glad I went!
It was just by the time I headed back to Vegas, the day was almost over. After dutifully cutting off every local trying to change lanes (it wasn’t my fault American indicators looked like brake lights), the folly of venturing away from the Strip on the day of a U2 concert became very apparent when the entire area was, yet again, at a stupendous standstill with eye-watering traffic jams, construction, closed roads and umpteen streets with slow lanes. I was so desperate and conscious of the time, at one point I was almost chucked my hazard lights on, abandoned the car and made my way to the concert on foot. It ended up taking an excruciating 90 minutes to reach my hotel, which left only time for a quick reheated meal before racing over to the Sphere.
Ornate handpainted ceiling in corridor of The Venetian, Las Vegas
Ouevre of opulence
As I followed the thousands of excited fans snaking their way through the marble corridors of The Venetian, I seemed to be the only one having conniptions that I’d somehow stuffed up my digital ticket and would be denied entry (not realising the box office would probably help since the IQ of my device wasn’t very high).
“You’re good to go!” the usher announced after scanning me through first go.
“Are you sure? That’s it?” I prodded as she nodded.  
I was so excited, I almost had kittens.
Hanging circular objects in UV-lit foyer of the Sphere, Las Vegas
The Unforgettable Foyer
The UV-themed foyer was so plush and grandiose, with sleek white escalators to heaven and multiple bars and levels, it felt like a hotel I had no business being in. With just a bit of time up my sleeve, I joined dozens of fans checking out the merch. A black shirt with beautiful blue U2:UV writing instantly caught my eye but it wasn’t until 20 minutes later when I reached the front of the line that I realised it was the back of a shirt with a butterfly on the front. Close, but no space baby. 
“Di-da-da-da-da-RA-DAH!”
The opening guitar riff for “Zoo Station” rang out over the speakers, amping up the already-animated audience for what was to come.
Prior to arriving in Vegas, I’d deliberately not looked at any photos, set lists, videos or reviews of any of U2's Sphere concerts so I could be blown away by the entire extravaganza as it unfolded. Only once I reached my elevated seat (after getting the usher to dim the light on my phone), could I finally take in the sheer scale and steepness of the Sphere’s vast curved interior, as “Vertigo” started playing in my head.
As a DJ busted out the last of his set from a neon-framed Trabant way down below, the sound of a helicopter made my entire row look up. There, in the circular opening at the top of the Sphere’s wheat silo-esque interior, we spied a chopper – or was it just an illusion?
And then it was time for the most anticipated moment of the millennium.
The audience and I lost our collective minds as Adam Clayton, The Edge and Bono (in his iconic Fly sunglasses) walked up onto the stage, alongside Bram van den Berg, who was filling in for the legendary Larry Mullen Jnr. on drums (as he recovered from much-needed surgery).
“Di-da-da-da-da-RA-DAH!”
Not long after, the guitar riff for ”Zoo Station” rang out, shaking the digital bricks off the Sphere’s 160,000 square foot wraparound LED screen for what had to be the most exciting opening to a concert since forever.


Patchwork digital imagery incorporating Achtung Baby album design for opening song in the Sphere, Las Vegas
The wonder of Willie Williams' designs
Thirty years prior, U2’s groundbreaking Zoo TV tour really pushed the multimedia envelope with a saturation of over-stimulation. This show at the Sphere, however, catapulted the senses into another dimension entirely.
During "The Fly”, flashing neon words appeared and, during the instrumental break, it felt like we were being in engulfed in a giant computer with a sequence of multi-coloured algorithms that transformed so dramatically, I swore the descending cube-shaped ceiling was collapsing in on us.
Floor to ceiling digital imagery of thousands of multi-coloured code-sequencing numbers
Numb by numbers (in a good way)
“Aaarrrrrgghhh!!!” I cursed at the amount of time it took mucking around with multiple attempts at my freaking passcode just to take a single photo; causing me to miss big chunks of the concert.
Then the dazzling visual presentation went into overdrive with “Even Better Than The Real Thing”; a standalone song already so incredible, made even more so thanks to Marco Brambilla’s kaleidoscopic “King Size” Elvis tribute that took over three months to create. We’re talking a rich tapestry of descending floor to ceiling imagery displayed on the highest-resolution LED screen in the world (16,000 x 16,000!). If cigarettes had been allowed in the venue, I may have needed several.
And that was just the first three songs!
Rich detailed computer-generated imagery devoted to Elvis designed by Marco Brambilla
Wonky photo of Marco Brambilla's awe-inspiring  masterpiece
Before their tenancy at the Sphere, U2 showcased a special screening of their '93 Zoo TV concert live from Sydney for their online fans. I still hadn’t found my VHS copy (that I’d been earnestly looking for), so I was thrilled at the chance to view my all-time ever favourite concert in the history of the world again. But as I started watching, there was something very strange going on and it took some time to figure out what it was.
Then it hit me: the audience was in complete darkness!
Every besotted fan was paying undivided attention, in the actual instant, watching the band beautifully stuck in a moment no one wanted to get out of. There were no phones, no cameras, no selfie-sticks - just obligatory lighters burning people’s fingers off. What’s more, the entire band could see every close fan’s delighted face and the level of instantaneous interactive give and take was electrifying. They were beautiful days.
Back at the Sphere, it became so frustrating faffing about on my phone and missing the show, I soon gave up and decided to just completely take in the immersive smorgasbord before me. The couple in front of me, however, defiantly filmed pretty much the entire concert with their phones regularly blocking everyone’s views behind them (made even worse by the domino effect of the people in front of them filming). It didn’t help that the guy directly in front of me was also rather tall and unknowingly blocked my view of the actual band for most of the night with his noggin alone. Should I have asked him to slink down into his seat or recline across the aisle so I alone could have a better experience?
Fortunately, there was something so wonderfully comforting about seeing – or even mostly just hearing – your favourite band, like a warm embrace from treasured friends in the midst of all the Vegas madness. Regardless of all the astounding bells and whistles of the show – and there sure were plenty – one of the most beautiful moments was when The Edge’s choreographer wife, Morleigh, was invited on stage and swung on the tail of a giant digital balloon as 17,000 of us sang a heartfelt “Happy Birthday” to her. The tenderness and kindness between The Edge serenading Mrs The Edge (as Bono called her) and accompanying her down the lift afterwards as she tenderly kissed his cheek? No amount of pyrotechnics could have equalled the adoration and collective love that generated.
So, too, when the band stripped it all back to basics for an acoustic set where it was just four extremely talented guys on a turntable stage rocking their hearts out – including a touching rendition of the rarely-played-live “All I Want Is You” (that Bono dedicated to all the women in their world, in the audience and afar), reminding us what had really brought us all there in the first place: the music!
(Well most of us. It was the only time the couple in front of me didn’t film.)
Projected circular images of U2 band members against richly decorated digital sky
Magnificent
From the pulsating rhythms of “Acrobat” (which is apparently challenging to play live) to the pared-back “Angel of Harlem”, with a whole lot of “Desire” and “Elevation” thrown into the mix, against a sky-scraping background of consumerism and climate change, a floating Sphere and the Las Vegas skyline, U2 had never sounded better and it was a sheer delight to see a very playful Bono in his element, changing key on a whim and thanking the crowd twice for travelling so far to see them.   
After a magical two plus hours of outstanding entertainment, the night concluded with Es Devlin’s stunningly powerful mural showcasing some of Nevada’s most endangered species. It was so utterly enchanting, I even went against my own morals and took a dodgy selfie – once I figured out how to do so.
Evocative endangered animal silhouettes by Es Devlin, known as Nevada Ark for the finale
The genius of Es Devlin's evocative "Nevada Ark"
As for 1993’s Zoo TV being the most exceptional concert I’ve ever seen?
U2:UV Achtung Baby Live now jubilantly takes pride of place.
(So much so, that in my final night in Nevada, I tried to get a last-minute ticket to see the Saturday night concert, and seriously considered trying to get back to the U2 museum to stock up on space baby merch, even though it would have meant missing my flight out.)
Was it worth the airfares and almost a full day’s travel to get there, steep technological learning curves (I’m going back to smoke signals after this), unrelenting traffic jams, very little sleep, eating my body weight in Chipotle, smelling like everyone else’s spliffs from walking around the Strip, feeling like a fish out of water without her bicycle amidst the desert heat, boisterous crowds, poker machines, street cacophony and mega bright lights in such a capaciously raucous atomic city?
Abso-freaking-lutely.
If I ever return, however, it will be with a private chef, a PA, a chauffeur, a pilot, a tour guide, a butler, an IT guru and a support sloth.
So much detailed design and technically advanced wizardry, not to mention astounding talent, creativity and heart-filled passion had clearly gone into making every moment of the Sphere show the best it could possibly be, in the only venue on the planet that could have hosted such a soul-stirring, earth-shattering, senses-on-steroids spectacular.
Despite the scale of the venue, thanks to the cutting edge acoustics, it somehow still felt like an intimate lounge room concert at times, with 16,999  of your closest friends collectively grateful to witness the world’s greatest rock ’n ’roll band in all of their epic glory.
Just next time? I might go to Dublin.
Painting of Elvis Presley in Las Vegas
Thank you very much!