Depeche Mode In Superb Form At Hollywood Bowl Debut
By Ben Wener ~
How fitting that of the two flags adorning the Hollywood Bowl’s iconic shell it would be California’s grizzly bear, not Old Glory, that would flap proudly in the chilly breeze Sunday night as Martin Gore and 18,000 or so fans sang the sticky-sweet, 25-year- old Depeche Mode ballad ‘Somebody’ for the first time at that landmark venue.
Not that the group hasn’t had massive nationwide influence and appeal for decades now, its cult following expanding exponentially after the MTV breakthrough of 1987’s Music for the Masses and the mega-platinum success of 1990’s Violator. By the time of that turning-point album they could sell out New York’s Giants Stadium as fast as Dodger Stadium and fill arenas coast to coast. Yet the English electro-rock pioneers have long had an affinity for Southern California, often residing and recording in various parts (Gore is particularly fond of Santa Barbara, where he has a home studio). Likewise, few locations in the world have produced a more rabid breed of fan.
After all, it was not far from here that Depeche Mode played to its first truly enormous stateside crowd, when some 60,000 turned out to see the band at the Rose Bowl (as seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s film 101). It was also not far from here, at the Shrine Expo Hall in May 1997, that the group finally got back on its feet after a debilitating five-year dry spell, during which time Alan Wilder quit (he’d been around since the second album, 1982’s A Broken Frame) and flamboyantly swaggering frontman Dave Gahan (above) was nearly lost to the ravages of heroin, among other things.
It makes sense, then –- although this wasn’t how it was planned –- that Depeche would kick off its shortened run of California dates with an auspicious pair of SoCal gigs: the trio’s first-ever appearances at the Hollywood Bowl in nearly 30 years of work. (After tonight’s replay there, the tour next stops Wednesday at Honda Center in Anaheim, the outfit’s first performance there in four years.)
Naturally, the turnout was insane and demand for pricey tickets sky-high. I come across far more DeModers these days (especially Latino fans) than I do Bossaholics, Phish-heads, Pearl Jam Ten Club members, Morrissey freaks, Cure junkies or any other sort of devotees willing to travel up and down the state (or further) just to hear which two or three songs might change from show to show.
Usually it’s the selections sung by Gore (right) that get swapped out. Sunday night he was in a sparse but emotionally powerful mood: In addition to ‘Somebody’ to start the first encore, his two-song mid-set spotlight found him first coming across like Scott Walker on ‘Jezebel’, one of five choices from this year’s 12th Depeche album Sounds of the Universe, then communing beautifully with his admirers via ‘Home’, a warm anthem that plays as well for standard-issue lovers as it does for offbeat misfits who have finally found a place where they belong.
Tonight and/or in Anaheim, fans might instead be treated to ‘A Question Of Lust’ or ‘Little Soul’ from Gore, while it’s possible that the encore grind of ‘Stripped’ will be traded for ‘Master and Servant’, just before the ensemble once more dusts off ‘Strangelove’, accompanied by a backdrop of foot-fetish porno.
At this point, however, I suspect Depeche die-hards will take whatever they can get, as it’s been a summer of health scares and setbacks for the group.
Several European dates were scrubbed when Gahan was hospitalized with a severe case of gastroenteritis, leading to the removal of a tumor from his bladder. Still more shows were canceled when he tore a calf muscle, and just this week the group was forced to pull out of dates in Mountain View and Chula Vista when the singer’s doctor placed him on complete vocal rest prior to these Bowl dates. (Noticeably Sunday night, as the night grew colder, Gahan, known for stripping down to black leather vest and tight pants, wore an additional scarf around his neck.)
Consequently, a dissipated air of worry, now turned into one giant sigh of relief, seemed to add extra oomph both to Depeche’s superb performance and the audience’s ecstatic reaction to it.
Even amid such iffy circumstances for the group, you still expect ’em to bring something special to a historic occasion like this, especially considering the spectacles that an offspring like Nine Inch Nails has staged here, or that a peer like the Cure turned in a career-capping epic at the Bowl not too long ago. Bravo to Depeche, then, for not disappointing in the slightest –- if anything, this current production is a vast improvement on the previous presentation.
That outing behind Playing the Angel that eventually led the band to a headlining turn at Coachella 2006 wowed fans, who rightly celebrated Depeche Mode’s strongest work (on record and on stage) since its Violator days, but it always seemed haphazard to me. Gore’s goofy feathery-angel getup was a distraction, for starters — he’s more like a blond Elvis in glittery silver now — and the visual display was disjointed, with a satellite spewing scenes and slogans separate from the rest of the backdrop. Now that same image-orb motif has been cleverly woven into the whole dazzle, so that a raven’s eye could gaze down on the crowd during ‘Walking in My Shoes’ … or so dozens of colored balls could be plopped out to bounce amid the wider frame in ‘Policy of Truth’ … or so the almost-50 faces of Gahan, Gore and stoic synth man Andrew Fletcher (above) could be blown up big while they posed in astronaut suits for ‘Enjoy the Silence’.
More importantly, however, Depeche’s music sounded more robust and thematically concise than ever before
Longtime fans may gripe that these days ‘Precious’ fills the questioning-God spot once held by ‘Blasphemous Rumours’, or that relatively little from the ’80s is included –- and I’d nitpick that for the money they’re asking, it’d be nice if Gahan, not the audience, sang more of the choruses to ‘A Question Of Time’ and ‘Stripped’ and ‘It’s No Good’. (Vocal strain or not, those melodies aren’t out of his range.)
It’s a slight shame, too, that a new album that so obviously evokes the group’s earliest recordings isn’t complemented by some rarities. I enjoyed the tail-end of Peter Bjorn and John’s opening set, badly drenched in reverb though it was, but my opinion is that such a significant Depeche show should have been longer -– and without a warm-up act.
Still, more than ever before, clear parallels could be drawn from then to now -– say, the thread of tortured yearning that stretched from the opening salvo ‘In Chains’ to the apocalyptic seduction of ‘Fly on the Windscreen’ and then to the sludgy groove of ‘Come Back’ (its warped feel owing more than a little to My Bloody Valentine). And it wasn’t just lyrical continuity that leaped out, though the thick atmosphere of dark obsession and fear of betrayal was pervasive. The songs themselves often sported remixed endings –- a funky percolating finish to ‘Enjoy the Silence’, a more rocked-up ‘Personal Jesus’ -– reminding just how much Depeche continues to reinvent itself with each new release, yet still maintain a recognizable aesthetic.
Very few others from their genre have pulled that off –- Pet Shop Boys may be their only competition, and they don’t play to even a fraction of as many people when they come back to California (they’re at the Greek next month). Despite the battle scars Depeche Mode has carried on rather magnificently, growing more popular as the years roll on. Now, despite this year’s delays, the band has really pulled together some kind of peak performance.
Main set: In Chains / Wrong / Hole to Feed / Walking in My Shoes / It’s No Good / A Question of Time / Precious / Fly on the Windscreen / Jezebel / Home / Come Back / Policy of Truth / In Your Room / I Feel You / Enjoy the Silence / Never Let Me Down Again
First encore: Somebody / Stripped / Strangelove
Second encore: Personal Jesus / Waiting for the Night
Source: Orange County Register