Old, cheapshot joke: Bono and the Edge walk into an Irish Pub in Anywheresville, the landlord takes one look and says “Oh, not U2 again.”
But yes, it is, and will be. In their latest calisthenic reinvention (is this U3? U7?), the band will launch the official opening of the Las Vegas MSG Sphere venue—and its own residency—in 2023, with 29 dates from September 29 to December 16, dedicated to their previous 1991 reinvention album Achtung Baby. Yes, like mobsters, crooked pols and your gramma, U2 is headed to Vegas to gamble, on a number of premises, not the least of which is their own continued viability.
But first, that venue. The $2.3 billion Sphere—”The Earth’s largest sphere besides the planet itself”, said USA Today—opened its 300-foot LED eyeball for the first time in the neon Vegas desert July 4, and it is, indeed… spooky. The world’s largest outdoors video screen—it encompasses the venue’s entire above-ground surface—is less like a UFO than a future-always-been-here-waiting; an alien ovum awaiting its final fertilization. And, enter the 4 little swimmers known as U2. And apologies for that visual.
And while this isn’t U2’s first Vegas incident (of which more later), it’s definitely a first, as the band will be performing without drummer Larry Mullen Jr., who is/will be recuperating from reported back surgery. Of which more later. But let’s begin with the band’s announcement of the whys and wherefores.
“Bottom line, U2 hasn’t played live since December, 2019, and we need to get back on stage and see the faces of our fans again. And what a unique stage they’re building for us out there in the desert… We’re the right band, ACHTUNG BABY the right album, and the Sphere the right venue to take the live experience of music to the next level.
“That’s what U2’s been trying to do all along with our satellite stages and video installations, most memorably on the ZOO TV Tour, which ended in Tokyo 30 years ago this fall. The Sphere is more than just a venue, it’s a gallery and U2’s music is going to be all over the walls.”
Typically inward-and-outward looking, that branding statement of purpose posits the residency as something that absolutely, positively, undeniably and unstoppably must happen. I mean, how could it not?
Vegas 2023 will not be the first time U2 has let it ride and risked an identity shift. But will the holy rollers come up seven… or snake eyes?
There is precedent for both.
Let’s flash back to April 25, 1997. Sam Boyd Stadium, in the Nevada desert. U2 opens the PopMart Tour in Vegas. I was there among the gliteratti attendees—James Caan, Sigourney Weaver, Coppola, DeNiro… “Well… looks like it’s gonna be one of those years”, Bono told 38,000 fans . “Woke up under a pyramid, looked out and saw the New York skyline, King Arthur’s castle around the corner… this is the only town in the world where they’re not gonna notice a 40-foot lemon.”
The 40-foot lemon was a stage prop. But it was also the show, as the band stumbled through a tour-opening set that tried to fuse the arch-irony of the Pop album with the U2 Sincerity Catalogue. From my concert review in the Montreal Gazette:
“On that mini-stage, Bono and the Edge serenaded the crowd with “If God Will Send His Angels”, and utterly botched the new single “Staring at the Sun”. Tempo sped up crazily at the first chorus, the song collapsed and Bono confided ‘we’re just having a family row’.”
Perhaps the band was affected by Rage Against the Machine’s ferocious opening set. Zack de la Rocha rapped Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” as straight protest, and his pointed “This is a rebel song” tweaked Bono’s famous ‘80s pronouncement. Bono blew other vocals as well, only adding to the giddiness. One minute, the Edge was singing karaoke Daydream Believer, the next, 15 vertical lasers were meeting at a point half a mile up as a ragged sky became a ragged “Bullet the Blue Sky”.
In 2001, addressing that shellacking, I interviewed bassist Adam Clayton and addressed a photograph of him in an orange hoodie tunic and white goggles playing a yellow space-bass. Which even he laughed at.
“That Pop tour was… great on many levels, but I think we made a few mistakes along the way. I guess we should have known better. But we didn’t give the record long enough for people to get to know it.” Arguable. But even he was aware that the band had taken an image-hit.
Ah well, saint one day, sinner the next! One minute you’re waving a white flag, proclaiming “this is not a rebel song!”, fighting apartheid and strolling through the Oval Offices, boardrooms, and ballrooms to save Africa… next you’re a money-grubbing villain. In 2006, there was the taxman imbroglio, when U2 moved its publishing arm from Ireland to the Netherlands to pay less tax. Back home, they were accused of “robbing the world’s poor” and “tax evasion”. The singer insisted there was no hypocrisy involved, and that the band was in “total harmony” with the Irish government’s views on tax: “At the heart of the Irish economy has always been the philosophy of tax competitiveness,” which took the country out of poverty, he stated. “On the cranky left that is very annoying, I can see that.”
Yeah, well. It wasn’t a good look.
But that moral stumble was nothing next to the notorious gaffe known as Applegate (with apologies to actress Christina)—when U2 committed a millennial-level marketing fiasco that fatally misread an entire generation: loading their new 2014 album Songs of Innocence to the iTunes libraries of 500 million users worldwide, who could not remove it.
Which the band saw as a grand magnanimous gift and branding coup to reach the young’uns. Blowback was swift, as millions upon millions of Millennials interpreted the surreptitious maneuver as a data intrusion, even a violation. Among the winning remarks: the free U2 album is, er, overpriced. Apple eventually had to invent a tool to allow people to remove the album.
But back to 2023, and what better place for sinners than Las Vegas, amirite? The U2 Sphere venue will be a reported 388 feet tall with seating for between 17,500 and 20,000 attendees, in a state-of-the-art audio and visual setting that will include 580,000 square feet of programmable LED panels. All of which is very interesting, but does not address the element missing from this entire actual real elephant-in-the-room issue hovering like a dirty cloud over this Vegas residency:
Let’s not go crazy here. Larry Mullen Jr. is never going to rank among the paradiddling greats behind the kit. He keeps time in U2, and really, that’s all anyone drumming in U2 can do—there isn’t a lot of room in those songs for rhythmic creativity, and no room at all for improv. Not that it matters, because Larry won’t be in Vegas. Sidelined by surgery, his seat will be kept warm by someone named Bram van den Berg.
Who? isn’t even the right question here—let’s try, Why? Among the hoary old clichés sewn through the narrative of rock’n’roll, none is larger than “brotherhood”. The underdog gang, us against the world, blood loyalty on the road. Sticking together, Man!
In fact, if anything, that old warhorse is the biggest myth in rock. In terms of loyalty above-and-beyond the call, there is one stellar example that comes to mind: Def Leppard inventing an actual kit when band member Rick Allen lost his arm in a car accident. In an interview between singer Joe Elliot and former Van Halen singer Sammy Hagar, Elliott once explained, “When Rick lost his arm, the way that we’d become by then—only five years as a band—we were so tight that we were like, ‘You don’t kick your brother out of your family if he has an accident’”. At which point Hagar spat out his tequila and proclaimed the gesture “unheard of in rock.”
“I mean, I’ve been thrown out of so many bands,” Hagar replied. “You go all the way with these people to the top, sell a gazillion records and do all this stuff and all the sudden they throw you out for some ego trip or something.”
Which, after all, is the true rock’n’roll code. There is, of course, the added issue: Larry is the teenager who posted the notice on the Mount Temple High School bulletin board (“Drummer seeks musicians” haha). Meaning, despite the Immensity of Bono, by the eternal rules of R ‘n’ R, U2 is actually Larry’s band.
Meh. It’s Vegas, where such platitudes get whacked like Joe Pesci with the aluminum bats. After all, what is Vegas but the Demon Soul of America? And is not the point of rock’n’roll to enter it… and see if you emerge with your own soul intact? Let U2 have their residency, but let’s do it up in the biblical sense befitting the band: 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, lads.