Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Touring The Angel

Depeche Mode, Wembley Arena, 3/4/06

It seems like Depeche Mode are one of those juggernaut bands who are always touring (the Rolling Stones of 80s bands) but in reality Mode tours roll around relatively infrequently. This latest mammonth world jaunt in support of last year's well received 'Playing The Angel' album brought them back to the UK for the first time in five years.

As ever, last night's show at Wembley Arena (still an unpleasantly gargantuan venue, but the rebuild has at least made some attempt to improve the stolid atmosphere) was a spectacle. The stage set featured giant silver pods, behind which the keyboards, synths and computers were cleverly concealed, presumably to hide the fact that Andy Fletcher still appears to do absolutely nothing for the majority of their performances. Hanging from the stage was a strange silver spacecraft message displaying key lyrics and predictable Mode words (pain, suffering, love, angel, sex, death). One has to get passed the occasional clunkiness of Martin Gore's lyrical preoccupations to enjoy a Mode show - and no doubt this element of the stage design pleased the residual goth element of the fanbase. The visuals were sparer than last time round, mainly focussing on cleverly treated images of the band's performance, with occasional interjections (peculiar images of naked women and shots from the band's justly revered video output).

Dave Gahan remains the band's strident visual focus, completely uninhibited in his camp, slightly sleazy onstage antics. He's clearly been practising his Freddie Mercury moves too - prancing about the stage with mic stand swinging. The stage set includes a catwalk into the crowd (have they been watching AC/DC shows?) which Gahan struts down with rampant showmanship, and no sense of irony whatsoever. He knows how to entertain the crowd, letting them do most of the work on the choruses of the best known hits ('Enjoy The Silence' and 'Personal Jesus' particularly). When he does bother singing, he demonstrates his growing vocal stature too - his voice sounding stronger and his range more commanding with each new Mode project. Significantly, he has finally been allowed to make a songwriting contribution by the notoriously controlling Gore - and his two efforts performed tonight ('I Want It All' and 'Suffer Well') are standouts among the newer material, bolstered by some relentlessly pounding live drums. Gahan is such a potent presence on stage that the set inevitably sags a little when Gore takes over lead vocal duties - although the piano and vocal encore of 'Shake The Disease' provided some welcome respite from the electro-industrial sturm und drang. Gore's selections mostly play to his strengths - and 'Home' is reworked with an inventive synth string-laden arrangement. New track 'Macro' is no less of a howler in a live setting though - its lyrics lurching uncomfortably towards self parody.

Predictably the set list concentrated on the new material (mercifully the far superior first half of the album) and the 1989 classic 'Violator', from which all four singles are played with a gusto that suggests the band have not lost interest in them yet. The crowd already seem to have embraced the new songs, with 'John The Revelator' and 'Suffer Well' particualarly well received. This tour has surprised with its shift away from the darker recent material in favour of some well-worn eighties classics. 'Ultra' and 'Songs Of Faith And Devotion' are given only cursory glances with jsut one and two songs selected respectively (still no 'Barrel Of A Gun'! No 'It's No Good'?!?!) but instead we get a deliriously enjoyable encore including 'Just Can't Get Enough' and one of the defining songs of the 80s 'Everything Counts'. Earlier, we were treated to a tremendously attacking version of 'A Question Of Time' and a potent 'Behind The Wheel'.

At these shows, it's hard to believe that the Mode are a band constantly at dispute between records, so strong is the camaraderie on stage, not least the playful campness of the relationship between Gore and Gahan (taken to an hilariously cheesy extreme on the closing ballad 'Goodnight Lovers'). The tagline for this tour has been 'Pain and Suffering in Various Countries'. Gore and Gahan can try and be as dark and foreboding as they like - but they can't hide the fact that this show was all about good, clean fun.


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