The Sphere in Las Vegas really is a 'quantum leap' for live music: Inside the first shows (2024)

Melissa RuggieriUSA TODAY

The Sphere in Las Vegas really is a 'quantum leap' for live music: Inside the first shows (1)

The Sphere in Las Vegas really is a 'quantum leap' for live music: Inside the first shows (2)

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LAS VEGAS − Last September, U2 changed the concert experience as we knew it.

On a stage designed as a turntable, the illustrious rockers broke into “Zoo Station” and the concrete walls towering over them trembled and broke apart.

Or at least it looked that way thanks to a massive 160,000-square-foot wraparound LED screen.

As a static backdrop hissed, Bono roared: “I’m ready! Ready for what’s next.”

It was an apt proclamation for the first concert at Las Vegas’ new toy, the Sphere, an imposing domed venue on the Strip that promises to be the next frontier in live entertainment through design and technology.

Since September, Phish and Dead & Company have also had turns at the Sphere, and The Eagles have announced their run will start Sept. 20. This prompted us to ask if the $2.3 billion venue is really the "quantum leap forward" The Edge described to USA TODAY before that first show, or another Vegas landmark where you can take a spectacular photo?

After seeing all three bands at the Sphere and talking with fans and stakeholders, we can say it turns the mundane into magical.

More: The Eagles are officially coming to the Las Vegas Sphere: Dates and ticket details

What is inside the Las Vegas Sphere?

On the Vegas skyline, the Sphere is the rotund counter to its towering neighbors The Venetian and Wynn Las Vegas.

It's the size of two city blocks and is taller than a football field is long. The Sphere has the seating capacity of an arena with all of the jaw-dropping wonder of a "Star Wars" ride at a Disney theme park, felt from the moment fans enter the futuristic atrium.

Built over four years, the Sphere is a uniquely fashioned venue with immersive sound from 167,000 individual speakers installed behind a 160,000-square-foot (about 3½ acres) LED screen with stunning 16k resolution.

The encompassing visuals are dizzying in the best way, whether they're the Elvis-inspired video creating a swooping feeling of movement during U2's "Even Better Than the Real Thing," the "scaffolding" that parted at the start of Dead & Company's “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” to display a quaint row of Haight-Ashbury houses then a hovering image of Earth's atmosphere or Phish's amber-lit floating fabric pods during "Leaves."

The "beamforming" sound technology in the venue allows sound to be controlled and targeted directly to certain sections, which Phish employed to head trippy effect. The absence of sound bleed from inside the dome into the concourse is another extraordinary element. Take a step out of the seating area and hear nothing but ambient background. Step back into the venue and feel an aural bear hug.

Why the Sphere is special for musicians: 'It's not just plug and play'

As told USA TODAY in an email, the Sphere unlocks creative boundaries to"take storytelling in live performance to the level of opera – maybe even beyond. U2 and Phish got the ball rolling. Now it’s our turn."

Because it can take up to a year to create specialized content to accompany live productions, the Sphere is using the residency model – ideally at least eight shows – as its blueprint.

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The U2 extravaganza, which found the veteran hitmakers performing all of their 1991 album, “Achtung Baby,” along with a set of hits, extended from a rollout of five shows to 40. By its March 2 finale, about 800,000 fans experienced its marvel.

“It’s definitely not a touring venue. It’s not just plug and play,” said Josephine Vaccarello, executive vice president, live, for MSG Entertainment, who oversees concert bookings for the Sphere. “We need an act that has the fan base and the following, the artist that has the creative vision for what we can do with these creative tools and the journey they want to take their fans on.”

Dead & Company, which has dates through Aug. 10, demonstrated the nimbleness of the Sphere's technology during its May 25 show when a camera atop the venue's roof captured a photo of the full moon. The image was quickly uploaded during the concert and appeared, along with a close-up of Weir, during “Black Peter.”

"Live concerts have always been the ultimate expression for music, and part of the joy of creating shows is making the most of what’s available in order to build a world with and around the music," said in an email to USA TODAY. "Having the Sphere as this giant new set of tools is a spectacular opportunity for musicians to tell a deeper, more immersive story. I’m honored to be one of the first explorers of this new frontier."

The Sphere offers an experience that's 'completely different' for fans

U2 fan Alejandro Familiar attended three of the band's shows, twice among the general-admission throng on the floor and once from the steep 400-level.

The Las Vegas resident is a devotee of the Irish rockers, whom he's seen at least seven times in stadiums, which made the 20,000 concert capacity at the Sphere a relatively intimate experience – and one that enthralled him.

"The technology is crazy, the sound is completely different than anything I've experienced in every other venue. It's just a whole immersive experience. (The band) can make you feel like you're in space, at a beach, they can transport you anywhere," he said. "You're used to going to a venue and looking at the band and maybe the guitars on stage for a minute, but there's no other place to look. Now, the band is what you pay the least attention to because of everything around you, but I don't think that's a bad thing."

Familiar surmised that some U2 fans – like himself – went to multiple shows so they could focus on different elements of the concert each time, as well as from various vantage points. (Be aware that the visuals can be obstructed by an overhang above the 100-level from about rows 24 to 37. Tickets are categorized as limited view.)

"It was a different experience sitting up top, like being in a huge movie theater. The band looks small from there and the stage looks really small, but the sound and visuals, that's what makes it," he said. "And you can be listening to a song and then they'll blast (images of) giant Bonos and the band on the screen and you go, 'Ah, OK, there they are.'"

More: The Beatles' 'Love' closes July 6. Why Ringo Starr says 'it’s worth seeing' while you can

Sphere challenges: 'We'll continue to learn'

Jennifer Koester, president and chief operating officer of Sphere, said nearly 1 million guests traveled through the venue by the fiscal third quarter that ended March 31. Yet some skeptics remain.

For those who wonder just what the big deal is about a venue with groovy technology, extremely vertical seating and pristine sound, it’s difficult to verbalize how transformative it is to feel, see and hear a show at the Sphere.

But as Vaccarello summarized: “Seeing it on videos is not the same as experiencing it in person. Once people experience it, they fall in love because it touches all of the senses.”

Along with the indisputable wonders of the Sphere, though, some operational hiccups left some guests with a frustrated impression.

At several U2 concerts and during Phish’s opening show, the ingress left fans crammed on the pedestrian bridge from inside the Venetian to the Sphere’s entry for 45 to 90 minutes. The first night of Dead & Company, the lines to the men’s bathroom snaked into the atrium.

These “pain points,” as Koester calls them, were addressed by directing fans to other entry areas outside the venue for U2, opening doors earlier for Phish the second night of their residency, and reversing one of the women’s restrooms – not quite as busy at a Dead show – to accommodate men.

The venue has also worked to offer reasonable parking options, including valet and space for limos, taxis and tour group buses. Several hundred spaces are available on site at the Sphere, with concert parking starting around $50 (it's $18 for the ongoing Sphere Experience with Darren Aronofsky’s breathtaking film “Postcard From Earth.”). The self-park garages at the adjoining Venetian and Palazzo are a minimum of $23 (event rates can vary), though casino visitors holding a certain level of player's club card can park free. The rideshare scene is typical of any major event, with significant congestion at peak entry and exit times.

As next-level as the Sphere is, it manages logistical issues with customer experiences faced by every event venue.

“Those are all adjustments,” Koester said. “And we’ll continue to learn.”

What will the Sphere be in five years?

Only live event ticket buyers will experience the sensory engulfment found inside the Sphere. But anyone can gape at the continually glistening digital exosphere, whether they are a photo-snapping tourist or one of the many airplane passengers scrambling for their phones on the descent to capture the newest landmark.

The Sphere's exosphere has shown playful emojis, glaring eyeballs, logos of its musical inhabitants, adorable memes, advertising and, coming July 4, student art. Only the truly apathetic can't be impressed.

The Sphere will also soon emit sound from its skeleton, an addition that has piqued the curiosity of some and pre-irritated others. The feeling among Sphere brass is that Las Vegas is already a cauldron of sound, so what's a little more?

But as eye-catching as the exosphere is, the future of the venue is all about what happens inside the dome.

The initial trio of Sphere bands leaned toward a middle-aged demographic, and the fourth, the Eagles, will park at the venue for eight shows beginning Sept. 20. Tickets are on sale at 1 p.m. ET June 21 via ticketmaster.com.

But there are plans to diversify the offerings and announce a few more performers, as well as other age-spanning multimedia events this year.

“We’re talking to a huge variety of artists. We’re just scratching the surface,” Vaccarello said.

One future ambition is being able to “flip” the venue within a single day; perhaps have a showing Postcard From Earth” – which plays most days there isn’t a concert at the venue – during the day and hold a live event that night.

The staging of the NHL Draft June 28-29 will mark the first live broadcast from the Sphere. Even corporate activity has emerged, with Hewlett Packard Enterprise scheduled to hold its keynote address at the venue June 18.

More: Jon Bon Jovi says 'Forever' pays homage to The Beatles, his wife and the working class

Koester knows that for the Sphere to thrive, constant movement is paramount.

“I go back to the premise upon which this was built, that this is a venue that is a disruptor,” she said. “The hope is that I can sit here in five years and say, 'We’re still ahead of everyone else and are continuing to evolve and push the boundaries with technology.' I wake up every day thinking about that.”

Does the Sphere live up to the hype?

The future of the Sphere is unquestionably intriguing. But in its nine months of existence, it has proven to be a game-changer for live experiences. Its bewitching presence has convinced most cynics that this flashy attraction on the Strip is more than a colorful orb with impressive sound and visual technology.

“Everyone is pushing the boundaries of the capabilities of that venue,” Koester said. “I was at U2 opening night – I’ve been going to see them since I was 13 – and it ruined me for every other concert."

The Sphere in Las Vegas really is a 'quantum leap' for live music: Inside the first shows (2024)

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