Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Sphere

People will try to describe the experience you have at the Sphere but let’s start with saying it unlike anything you've experienced before.  It doesn’t matter if you see the film or a live act, this will be different. Which is exactly what Madison Square Garden Company was going for with the Sphere.  You’ll find a lot of comparisons to IMAX, Disney’s Soaring Attraction, 360 theaters but that’s only because how else do you describe something never done before.  The Sphere is one of those rare attractions that lives up to the hype, not only breaking the technological ceiling set before it but creating a new form of entertainment.  Let’s discuss some of the ways its unlike anything you’ve seen before.
First, the Sphere is located behind the Venetian convention center.  It’s the largest spherical building ever constructed at 366 feet tall and 516 feet wide.  The exterior also features 580,000 square feet of LED displays, making it the largest LED display in history.  It cost approx. $2.3 billion to build and took 4 years to bring to life.  Construction started in 2018 with a planned opening in 2021 but had to put the project on hold in 2020 due to supply complications brought on by the COVID pandemic.  When progress resumed, materials and technology costs had increased causing the originally projected $1.2 billion dollar price tag to almost double by the time it was completed.
The Sphere is the most expensive music and entertainment venue in history.  It seats 18,600 and with standing room accommodations that can handle up to 20,000.  10,000 of those seats have haptic technology incorporated into the seats.  They work in conjunction with 4d features like scent and wind.  At 160,000 square feet, the 16k resolution wraparound LED screen is the largest and highest-resolution LED screen in the world.  The sound system comprises of 1,600 speakers installed behind the LED panels.
The experience starts the moment you enter the venue.  The atrium is large enough to fit the statue of liberty or the Saturn V rocket.  Inside, you’ll find five humanoid robots throughout the venue introducing you to the Sphere as well as interacting with patrons.  While the technology is impressive, personally, I would best describe them as borderline creepy.  That said, they are powered by AI and have the ability to react to those that interact with them.
The Sphere isn’t designed to host things like professional sporting events typically presented in the round.  However, it would fit well with events like boxing, MMA, WWE, esports or even award ceremonies in addition to concerts and films. Today, we are going to discuss both the film and the concert experience.
The Film
Darren Aronofsky, probably best known for the films like Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and The Whale, is the director of the first film ever captured in 18k.  It’s called “Postcards from earth” and tells the story of a dystopian earth that humans have had to evacuate due to all the damage done to it. It follows 2 humans waking up from cryo-sleep after their journey to another planet that can sustain life. Darren uses this narrative to showcase what sort of film experience only the Sphere can offer. It can probably be best described as a love letter to the planet featuring some of the most breathtaking scenes ever captured on film. The film is 50 minutes long and ticket prices start at $89, increasing based on the better the seat location.
The Show
So a few of things to get out of the way:
First, I know this is a divisive band. People seem to love them or hate them. I happen to be in the “love them” camp, and I don’t really care if you’re in the “hate them” camp.  Music opinions are entirely subjective and no one is going to change anyone’s mind.  With that in mind, I’d like to ask those that aren’t interested to simply move on instead of voicing your distaste. It’s not that you can’t have an opinion, it’s just that I don't like K-pop, but I don’t mention that I don’t like K-pop every time the subject comes up. What I’m saying is don’t yuck someone else’s yum, okay?  Also, if you think U2 is the worst ever for putting a free album on your iPhone several years ago, but you continue to buy all things Apple, your opinion has no weight here.
Second, I recognize that this isn’t 360 Vegas Album reviews, and I’ll try to keep that in mind as I discuss this show, but the Achtung Baby album is the center of this show, and it’s the genesis of my love for this band, so forgive me if I spend too much time discussing the virtues and nuance of the album.
And finally, I’m not going to have too much to say about the experience at the venue.  Our seats were general admission, so we were standing room on the floor. They brought us in a separate entrance from everyone else who had seats, and we never saw the lobby or any of the concession areas.  I wish I could comment more on the rest of the facility, but my experience doesn’t allow that.
All right, so back to point 1.  “Achtung Baby” made me a U2 fan.  I came out at a time when I was looking for my own music and not just listening to the music my parents listened to.  I always thought it was a brave album: U2 had won two Grammys for The Joshua Tree and came back four years later with Achtung Baby as if to say, “Glad you liked that, now here’s something completely different.” It’s an album about conflict and resolution; a result of recording in Berlin after the reunification, and during the time guitarist The Edge was going through a rocky divorce. I also think it’s a very “Vegas” album.  It’s dark, it’s sexy, and it’s full of temptation references. There’s an arc through the album, and you can argue that it tells the story of a night out that goes a little too far, and the reconciliation that comes with the sunrise.
So all of that is to say that when I found out my favorite band would be performing my favorite album in my favorite city, I packed up my favorite person and made for the promised land.
Again, our tickets were General Admission, which is standing room only on the venue floor.  We’ve done this once before; more than ten years ago. I waited in line all day to get us “close” to the stage, and always felt as though it was a one-time thing.  When we bought General Admission tickets for this event, I made it clear to my wife that I was not going to spend a day in Vegas waiting in line. Thankfully, the event attempts to address this, somewhat successfully. If you have General Admission tickets, you can arrive at the Sphere between 8 am and 1 pm the day of the event to get a numbered wristband. Then you return to the venue around 5 pm, and they let you in based on the number on your wristband.  It’s not a perfect system, though. We drove to the Sphere to pick up our wristbands, and they didn’t allow parking on the property for wristband pickup. So we had to park on a crowded side street and walk around a bunch of F1 fencing and bleachers to get to the part of the venue that was distributing wristbands. I understand charging for parking when there’s an event, but not even letting someone park to run in and get a wristband for 2 minutes is bonkers.
We stayed at the Wynn the night of the show, so we walked to the event in the evening. Getting there is easy, and there are signs through the Venetian directing you there. I thought we were going to end up taking the new pedestrian bridge that crosses over Koval from Venetian to the Sphere, but here again, they directed GA ticket holders out of the Venetian convention center building along Sands Avenue, where we had to cross Koval via the crosswalk. Then we had to walk along the north side of the building and enter via the “East VIP entrance.”
Here is another complaint about the venue. They have got to streamline their entrance procedures. I think about a venue like T-Mobile Arena, which has similar capacity to the Sphere. It takes less than 5 minutes to scan your ticket, pass through security, and be inside that place. Sphere needs more doors, and more Security people at the door to make that process a little smoother.
Once inside, we were directed down very dark, moody hallways toward the GA area. We stopped to use the restroom along the way, and I found the restrooms to be suitably massive. Excellent capacity for restrooms only intended for the GA crowd.  There was also a bar/lounge, but we didn’t really check it out.
Upon entering the GA floor, we ran into a wall of people.  I had seen in videos from previous shows that it seemed as though the stage left side had fewer people than stage right, and they literally dumped us out on the stage right side. We pushed our way over to the stage left side, and so despite getting there long after we should have with our wristbands we ended up about 10 people back from the stage. Not bad.
We sat on the floor because it was still about an hour and a half before the band was to take the stage.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole herd of cocktail waitresses walking the GA floor and taking drink orders. I have never seen that on a General Admission floor before.
Around 7:30 or so, a DJ started playing. He was DJing from this modified car that slowly moved around the GA floor. When I heard the band chose a DJ for the opening act, I was really hoping that it wouldn’t be “oonce-oonce club music,” and it turns out that I had nothing to worry about.  This guy knew his audience, and was playing rock and pop hits from the 80’s and 90’s.  The crowd was really getting into it and singing along with songs like “Livin on a Prayer.” It was a great fit.
At about 8:40, the lights went down and the crowd got loud.  Slowly, the band took the stage. Bono started singing a sort of short acapella song that I have not heard before, then the drums kicked in and the band launched into Zoo Station, the opening track of Achtung Baby. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but I’ll say that the way the band uses the screen here to kick off the show is really cool. If you think you might want to see the show, I’d recommend staying spoiler-free about the intro. It’s really fun.
The band played 7-8 tracks from Achtung Baby. They did not play them in exact album order, but in this first section, they played songs from the first 2/3rds of the album. Then they shifted gears a little and played a few other songs, mostly acoustic. This was the day after the Hamas attack on Israel, so this was mentioned, followed by I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Pride (In the Name of Love), and MLK.
Then Bono announced it was “time to wake the Baby up,” and the band went on to finish Achtung Baby.  This was probably my favorite part of the show for a couple reasons: 1) It’s later in the show, so fewer people had posted photos and videos of this portion, so there were more surprises and 2) it’s really the emotional emotional climax of the album, so I’ve always felt those songs hit pretty hard.

After finishing the 2nd Achtung Baby section, the band said goodnight, but of course returned for their encore. The encore was kind of a greatest rocking hits section, where they did songs like Elevation, Vertigo, Where the Streets Have No Name, Beautiful Day, and of course, their new Vegas anthem Atomic City.  I won’t spoil Atomic City either, but it had some of my favorite visuals of the show.
Let's talk about some of the visuals. We were concerned that where we were sitting, we would be so close to the screen that we couldn’t appreciate the whole thing.  There were times that we found ourselves looking around and above to take everything in, but I don’t think we missed out on anything by being so close. There was another concern about getting dizzy. Some people get Vertigo (ha!) in Imax theaters, and the Sphere is like Imax on steroids. We only felt a little dizzy at one point, and that was during “Even Better Than The Real Thing.” So during this song, it has maybe the most impressive and complicated graphics of the entire show. They are structured like a moving monument to Elvis and Vegas, and they slowly and steadily move downward. I was looking up at these graphics and following them down with my eyes. When my eyes got to the fixed point of the stage, it felt like the stage was tilting up from the back and we were about to all fall over. They don’t really use any flying or moving visuals that might convey motion from the viewer’s point of view, so there weren’t any other times I felt dizzy or motion-sick.
A few words about sound quality, since we are discussing a rock concert. Overall, I think the sound was excellent. The mix was superb, and I could hear every instrument. I’ve seen them live in arenas where we sat in the nosebleeds and Bono’s voice was all tinny. I’ve watched a lot of videos taken from different vantage points in the Sphere, and the sound is pretty good in all of them, especially considering that it’s going into a crappy cell phone mic. It’s worth noting that aside from 4-5 monitors on stage for the band, you don’t see a single speaker anywhere in the venue. 

At the end of the day, I think if you don’t like the band - if they just rub you wrong no matter what they do - you’re probably going to stay away, and that’s fine. If you like a few of their songs and want to see a rock concert unlike anything else you’ve seen, it’s worth checking out. And if you call yourself a fan, then you really shouldn’t miss out on this experience. I think a band or artist could be intimidated by this venue and this space, it would be easy to be afraid of being upstaged by the visuals and the scale of everything, but I think U2 is the perfect group to launch this facility. 25 years ago they were touring with (what was at the time) the biggest video screen in the world, so these are guys who know how to utilize large scale visuals in their shows and embrace the technology.

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