The Man Behind the Spectacle of U2 at Sphere

Four decades of progressively over the top productions reach a peak in Las Vegas




The guy who has brought U2 to life in concert since the band left forever the club scene is Willie Williams. Over the last four decades he has partnered with the band in their ever-escalating vision of presenting their music on stage. I had a chance to chat with Williams recently after the band’s debut at Sphere.

At this point it is very difficult to separate the band from the Las Vegas venue where they will be in residence into 2024. Nonetheless, the four Dubliners were the logical choice as the first band to perform at the most expensive entertainment venue in the world.

In speaking of the band’s stage evolution, Williams told me that one of the first manifestations the band had in presenting a visual aspect to their art was during the War tour, in support of their 1983 third album. Williams said the three white flags were Brechtian.

I asked Williams about the infamous mantra the band have used, “maximum minimalism.” He explained that once any band emerges from clubland, the expectation is to provide a good and bigger experience at the live show, but as a counterbalance U2 tries to recall their punkish roots.

“Lighting is certainly one tool to provide that good experience,” mused Williams about his time starting to work with U2. “That was about the time that the [automated] Vari-lite started to appear.” He has always been suspicious of ubiquity and so he leaned into manually controlled follow spots, which he describes as “very human, and less mechanical.”

Even when the band reached stadium level, U2 still utilized fixed lighting “as it seemed more pure.” But when the band hit the Rattle and Hum era in 1988, it became “clear that they had reached some sort of conclusion, therefore they went over the top with Achtung Baby and the Zoo TV Tour.” Williams mentioned that Edge stated at the time that was their reward of 10 years of restraint.




When the Vegas opportunity at Sphere presented itself, the band of course saw it as catnip, or as Williams put it “the challenge of playing to that many people without selling out to showbiz.” Admitting that it’s very hard to manufacture surprise, Williams indicated that “the creative material for Sphere is massively expensive, even in [digital] storage costs.” I mentioned that while I was watching the band‘s second public performance at Sphere, I was trying to determine who would be the next band. While giving away no secrets, Williams revealed that “many of the artists thinking of coming into Sphere have talked to us about the many challenges. For one thing, you can’t hang anything.”





Williams went on to explain that it “was like a three legged obstacle course heading up Mount Everest: to imagine a show unlike another, in a building that was being built at the time, and also to share the space with the Darren Aronofsky film Postcard From Earth.” Williams explained that starting in July 2023, they had two months to prepare, a luxury that no other band will ever have. “In many respects, it was the toughest job of any artist that will perform at Sphere, but it was still a highly compressed timeframe.”

In that every major concert tour has an associated film, I asked Williams what the thinking has been in this regard. He disclosed that drone footage actually captures the inside of the building at its best. His additional insight was that this non-sports venue would actually be ideal for hosting e-sports competition. Certainly that genre rakes in more money than rock ‘n’ roll.

Back to the design work, Williams pointed out that the lighting is always crucial anywhere and lighting is actually easier for him at Sphere because the guests are in a predetermined space as opposed to the challenge of moving from town to town. Williams indicated that he has been thrilled with the camera work being used to provide larger than life imagery of the band on the massive screen, especially because he opted for fewer cameras of a higher quality. In further keeping with the mantra of maximum minimalism, there are only 12 lights used in the show.

Williams also described that when they built out the quarter size model of the venue in Burbank, the biggest thinking was grappling with how they would navigate a space with no corners. He played around with changing the horizon line as a solution. Nonetheless, there remained the big challenge of balancing spectacle and intimacy. Those in the general admission section on the floor are standing and enjoy a sense of intimacy, but they also find themselves craning their necks to track the video stretching up into the distance.

The minimalist stage set draws on the turntables designed by fellow passenger Brian Eno while quarantined during the pandemic in East England. The resulting design does a good job of keeping the band contained in a space, as there could be no runways as has been the case in many prior stage designs. For a live spectacle as grand as this production, there is a shockingly small amount of equipment on stage. In Eno’s original consumer turntables, he developed an algorithm to endlessly run the subtle lights endlessly without repetition. Williams pointed out that “Eno agreed to add some parameters to the stage version to prevent the algorithms locking into one color for an extended period of time.”

In closing Williams related a funny exchange with bassist Adam Clayton, reflecting recently on the uniformly positive reviews of the Sphere performances. Williams said to the bassist “U2 are cool again” and Adam responded, “Yep, once every 36 years.”

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.