Health Problems Don’t Hamper Depeche Mode

August, 24, 2009 / 0 comments

By Megan Finnerty ~

When Depeche Mode eased into their slinky opening ‘In Chains’, at US Airways Center in Phoenix Sunday night, the audience wasn’t sure what to expect, even though many in the crowd were old enough to have been at the band’s first show almost 30 years ago.

It felt almost as though the crowd that mostly filled the arena – 30- and 40-somethings, touches of neon hair among the salt-and-pepper – was holding its collective breath, the tension of lead singer Dave Gahan’s recent health troubles almost greater than that of the track from the band’s new ‘Sounds Of The Universe’. Since beginning the global Tour of the Universe in May, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher, Gahan and their touring musicians have canceled a handful of dates because of Gahan’s health problems, including a debilitating bout of gastroenteritis, a malignant bladder tumor (since removed) and a torn calf muscle.

But as Gahan and crew rumbled through the latest single, ‘Wrong’, concerns about his health disappeared with every fist pound, hip thrust and microphone stand twirl. In what’s become his uniform on this tour and 2005’s Touring the Angel – a black leather vest and slim black trousers – Gahan pranced and minced about the front of the stripped-down stage through the first three tracks off the new album.

Gore stood apart from him, far to the left, wearing a three-piece silver sequined suit, eyes lined in black, arms gleaming with pearlescent glitter, visible when he stripped off his suit jacket. Behind them stood two oversized synthesizers, one with Fletcher manning it stoically, and a drum kit that spent the night being punished by the thrashing touring musician Christian Eigner. Behind all that, just a giant screen of lights on which various esoteric images – crows, the band in space suits, bouncing colorful balls -played throughout the show.

Gahan has had voice issues on the tour, canceling some dates to preserve it, but in Phoenix, he just let the crowd pick up the choruses to the band’s best-known songs, including ‘Walking In My Shoes’, shouting “Say what?” after each round of the relatively long, complicated stretch of lyrics.

But the crowd had no problem supplying the words here, or clapping along every time Gahan shouted at them to do so, during the hits ‘It’s No Good’, and ‘A Question Of Time’, making a concert that could have felt gothic and edgy into something closer to a religious revival. The fans certainly screamed and clapped and sang like believers.

But that’s the thing about Depeche Mode that’s perhaps the most compelling reason to see them live. In a time when many aging touring bands sound better in the studio, because of voices no longer capable of hitting notes or a certain “nostalgia” feeling that sets in, Depeche Mode’s music is improved by the live setting, the alienation and misery of the lyrics muted by the communal setting and transformed into something life-affirming in the face of the dark parts of life that the band has made a living recognizing.

Throughout the show, Gore sang with Gahan often, adding vibrato and depth to Gahan’s shouting, desperate delivery. Gore is restrained and expresses the balance between pleading and commanding that’s at the heart of the tension in Depeche Mode’s best songs. The two manage exhortation, threat and come-on, all in one verse.

While the band drew from the new album, most of the songs were from their deep past and recognizable to even casual fans. But they were improved by stripping them down to only the elements that make people pound their heads, sway their bodies and clap to a double-time beat on Gahan’s command.

The synthesizers were emphasized less for their cold, technological sounds. Rather, keyboardist Fletcher and supporting keyboardist Peter Gordeno extracted from them a percussive, artificial sexuality missed by so many of the other bands mixing them in these days. And Gore made over the guitar work on many songs to feature a more aggressive, filtered, fuzzed-out sound that, refreshingly, happily balanced the band somewhere between New Age, synth-pop and garage rock.

Other highlights included any of the songs Gore sang alone, including his touchstone, ‘Somebody’, a song so emotionally naked and raw and needing that it never fails to shock, and the new ‘Little Soul’, both of which received only keyboard treatments. His rich voice has a luxurious clarity and he hits every note in a way Bono, Bruce and even Michael Stipe fail to do so live these days.

Two encores wrapped up the two-hour show that included hits from 1984, 1986, 1990 and 1997, and 2009. Notably absent were tracks from 2001’s ‘Exciter’.

The show closed with a duet from Gore and Gahan for the quiet, eerie ‘Waiting For The Night’, from 1990’s ‘Violator’. It was moody and foreboding, like a lullaby sung in an alley.