Thursday, October 19, 2017

Depeche Mode concert review: Los Angeles Night #4

photo: Daniel Barassi, from Las Vegas, Sept. 30, courtesy
Depeche Mode has always had a special relationship with Southern California. It was where they garnered some of the first U.S. radio airplay for 1981 debut LP "Speak & Spell" via KROQ/106.7 FM and has been the site of countless large venue gigs (most famously 1988's "Concert for the Masses" at Pasadena's Rose Bowl). 

Over the years, the alternative rock station and local fans have continued to strongly support the veteran British electronic music group (which was just nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again) while many of their early contemporaries have met with declining fortunes and interest levels.

So it was no surprise to see Depeche Mode make history by becoming the first act to sell out four consecutive nights at the Hollywood Bowl. The solid latest album "Spirit," produced by James Ford (Florence + The Machine, Arctic Monkeys, Simian Mobile Disco), boasts dark sonic textures that often recall the trio's influential mid-career period. Lead singer Dave Gahan has even likened "So Much Love" to post punk act Cabaret Voltaire.

Two years ago, while penning lyrics about the bleak direction the world was heading with the United Kingdom's Brexit decision and America's potential election of Donald Trump, chief songwriter/singer/guitarist Martin Gore was quite prescient. Now his words seem like they could've been done just a couple months ago. Case in point: the first single "Where's the Revolution": "Who's making your decisions/You or your religion/Your government/Your countries/You patriotic junkies."

The last time I'd seen Depeche Mode live was a co-headlining stint at the 2006 Coachella Festival, so I was curious to see if they still put on a mesmerizing show. I wasn't disappointed.

Before the musicians took the stage on Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl, a bit of The Beatles' "Revolution" served as intro music before instrumental "Cover Me" sounds and walking feet graphics from Anton Corbijn's "Spirit" cover came to life on the venue screens. 

Depeche Mode opened the impressive two hour, 15-minute set with "Going Backwards," the first of three "Spirit" songs performed. Gahan suddenly appeared in shadow on an elevated platform at the back of the stage. An image of what looked like a Jackson Pollock painting was projected on the screens. As the song progressed, the splotches slowly disappeared.

Gahan, sporting a mustache, slicked back hair and clad in his usual shirtless black vest, quickly spun himself around at the start of "It's No Good" and whipped fans into a frenzy. He did a sinister vocal on "Barrel of a Gun" and added a line from Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" as Gore played a silver star electric guitar. After Gahan did some of those trademark "yeahs" and twirled the microphone, one concertgoer near me remarked that the singer was like the late Freddie Mercury of Queen. 

In previous interviews before the L.A. run started, the band members hinted they would change up the setlist here because many fans tend to go to every show. That was definitely true on Wednesday with four tour debuts. First came "Useless," from 1997's "Ultra" (the album with most songs pulled from) - a tune reportedly not played since '98! The primal vocals were paired with Gahan teasingly shaking his butt. 

The bowl's energy level rose considerably during the slinky electronic groove of early set highlight "World in My Eyes." More people were suddenly dancing. Gahan waved his arms to the sounds and grabbed his crotch. Gore's exquisite slide guitar work stood out on "Cover Me," as the black and white music video depicting Gahan as an astronaut roaming city streets and going up to space, was shown on the screens. Kudos to the cameramen and production crew, who often projected the musicians at different angles.

photo: Daniel Barassi, from Las Vegas, Sept. 30, courtesy
Gore moved front and center for a few lead vocal spotlights. Backed only by keyboardist Peter Gordeno, he did tender ballads like "Sister of Night" (a tour debut apparently not played since '09) and the luxurious "Home."

On the latter, fans kept singing well after the music stopped. Gahan returned to the stage and urged them to continue, proclaiming they "were the best."

Mostly though, Gahan let the music do the talking. The tour debut of a dramatic "Precious" was strong, even while the singer showed some restraint. Several older songs had revamped intros, so you often didn't recognize them until a key melody kicked in. "Everything Counts" was a prime example. Despite being the evening's oldest song (harking back to 1983), the lyrics were still as relevant as ever. More fans stood and most of them didn't sit back down for the remainder. Another enthusiastic singalong commenced after the music stopped.  

During the home stretch, "Stripped" was stunningly eerie, a transcendent, "Enjoy the Silence" featured an extended groove section where Gore's guitar work recalled Chic (!) and main set closer "Never Let Me Down Again" finished with the famous crowd arm wave and Gahan's own outstretched messiah-style. 

Come encore time, the rarity "But Not Tonight" was another nice Gore lead vocal spotlight with only electric piano accompaniment. Then came a final tight batch of uptempo hits - "Walking in My Shoes," "Policy of Truth," "I Feel You," "Personal Jesus" - that saw Gahan do more whooping, hollering and sexual posturing as the band ended things on a high note. Gore's lyric in "Tonight" summed it all up: "I haven't felt so alive in years."   

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