On September 29 the iconic Irish rock band U2 played the first concert in the Sphere, Las Vegas’ other-worldly $2.3 billion immersive concert hall. Years in the making, the performance ushered in a new era of rock and roll spectacle, as the band’s familiar music was augmented—and some might argue, eclipsed—by the virtual-reality-like immersiveness of the 160,000-square-foot 16K-by-16K LED display. They also took advantage of the Sphere’s spacial sound powered by 168,000 speakers.
U2’s set included a full airing of their Achtung Baby album and some hits. But while the band was in fine form, managing a show without their regular drummer Larry Mullen Jr. for the first time in decades, the real noise was directed at the eye. Was this “The future of live shows?” as one headline asked. Or, to cite other accounts, was it “the greatest show on Earth,” that “will change live entertainment forever?” From my seat in section 104, I found these questions worth asking.
As some critics gushed and some others wrung their hands, the band itself has largely let the ex-Sphere-ience speak for itself. I got a chance to speak to U2’s virtuoso guitarist, and resident technophile, The Edge, who shared his impressions of the show as well as the future of immersive concert technology, and of course, Elvis. The interview is edited for length and clarity.
Steven Levy: Now that you’ve got a couple shows under your belt at the Sphere, how are you feeling about it?
The Edge: I’m just so happy with the fact that it’s landed. It’s exceeded our wildest expectations in many ways. I was always saying to people when we were working with the concepts that the audience was the missing element. You don’t really know how it’s gonna play until you have an audience in the house. Within about four songs of the opening night, I was like, this is definitely working.
Can you break down what made you feel that you were connecting with the audience even though all those graphics were so overwhelming?
We started hearing a visceral reaction to some of the visual ideas. It was so funny—our mix engineer was backstage doing the live audio for the TV feed that night. He was used to hearing the crowd responding to the big choruses and the guitar solos and whatever. But he was completely confused by these huge roars that seemed to be happening in the middle of songs. They were responding to the visuals. So now it’s a fistfight between the band and the immersive screen. We kind of win most nights, but it’s almost an even fight.
Some people are wondering whether you do come out on top, or if the visuals, however stunning, detract from the music. What do you think about that?