Thursday, September 10, 2009

Performance Review: Why Did You Let Me Down (Again)?

On Tuesday, September 1, Depeche Mode played in Atlanta. I was there.

My affair with Depeche Mode is a long and winding road, and one that I won’t back down at this time. Suffice it to say, per the subject reference, we’ve had our ups and downs, our accords and disagreements, our richer and poorer (basically them becoming the former while I become the latter spending copious amounts of money on their releases).

In the twentyish years I’ve been a passing to rabid D-Mode fan, I’ve never had the opportunity to see them live, and definitely never in their performance “heyday,” roughly between 1987 and 1994. All of that changed this year with their thirteenth release, Sounds of the Universe (see my previous post on that album here), and the subsequent Tour of the Universe in support of the album.

To digress slightly…JT and I have had many, many conversations about the “classic alternative” bands of the 80s who made it big sometime around the end of that decade (other notables including The Cure, REM, U2, etc). Of all those bands, we’ve concluded that Depeche Mode has been the one to not only continue delivering the same level of quality music as they did in their critical and popular prime, but in some instances (like 2005’s Playing the Angel) may have even surpassed those stellar heights.

However, when the opportunity arose to see them on this tour, I wasn’t initially interested. And a lot of that had to do with being older and a new father, but also, I’ve become more jaded overall to the “live experience.” Audiences, and I may be talking about you, are just rude these days. Not only are they discourteous to the artists bringing them the goods, they’re doubly so to the true fans (because a true fan wouldn’t take a phone call during the quietest moment of the quietest song of the set) who have spent, let’s face it, WAY TO MUCH MONEY to see whomever perform. My tolerance lately is way, way low for such nonsense. But JT pointed out that this would likely be our only chance to see the great Depeche – so the die was cast (or rather a large hunk o’ change).

The story of this road trip to Atlanta, especially the harrowing 20ish minutes before getting to the show, is somewhat interesting/humorous in and of itself, but I’ll leave that alone. Needless, we made it to the Lakewood Amphitheater (having mercifully missed the opening act Peter, Bjorn and John) where Josh and I wandered our way to Section 206, Row PP, Seats 33 and 34 (which were just a few rows up and a few clicks stage right from where we’d seen the Cure back in September of 1996). The rest of our party – Karla, Amber and Ryan – sat on the grass…suckers.

You have to keep in mind that, obviously, JT and I are music geeks. Months ago when this tour started we’d already looked up the basic set list so we would know what to expect. Naturally since this was the Tour of the Universe supporting Sounds of the Universe, the set was heavy with tracks from that album, but also pulled generously from various hits and singles going all the way back to 1984’s Some Great Reward, with extra emphasis on their two biggest albums, Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion (the latter for me being one of the alluded to “let downs” of the past).

Also, this tour was fraught with peril for lead vocalist Dave Gahan, with everything from a stomach tumor, to a torn ACL, to vocal strain cancelling several dates all around the world. In the days and weeks leading up to the show, we wondered if he’d still be alive, much less able to perform.

Once in our seats, however, anticipation was pretty high and we checked out the people around us, who were mainly average looking thirty-somethings like us, with a few “modded out” folks here and there – keeping the true spirit of the 80s alive.

When the lights went down, we screamed. Or I did. I’m not sure what JT was all about. As expected, once the band sauntered out (the now three-piece since 1997 of Gahan, Martin L. Gore and Andy Fletcher is accented onstage by two long time session men), they went immediately into album opener In Chains. All things were on their way to Rockville…until Dave opened his mouth for the first line, “The way you move…,” and most assuredly my heart did not. His voice was a drowned rat.

Thanks for nothing, Dave!

Still, there was hope. Monitor issues, mix problems, possible jitters…all of these things can make the first song or two sketchy, so give it some time and they’ll work it out. And sorta they did, but not really. The problem throughout was our boy Dave. He still moved like the showman of the 80s and 90s I’d seen on countless videos, but even when his vocals were on, which was often, he just as often turned the mic to the crowd in that oh-so-cocky rock star way for us to sing not with him, but for him. This included every chorus for songs such as Fly on the Windscreen, A Question of Time and their worldwide signature hit, Enjoy the Silence. It seriously got to the point where I was expecting/dreading it so much that I couldn’t really get into the show.

Clearly he was trying to save his voice. But really, if it’s that bad, just cancel the show. I mean I was gonna sing along anyway, but I didn’t think I was part of a mass audition to take his place. And while Martin’s voice was as emotive and fantastic as in stories of old, and the rest of the band synth-grooved with the best of the best, Gahan with his rock boy antics, cheesy smiles and “mic turning” just basically ruined the experience for us.

And it was worse for JT than it was for me. While I definitely had a fan of my caliber on my side, she kept here singing and dancing and clapping as respectfully in her area as possible. Meanwhile, JT had one of those over the top gushers who screamed and swooned at every note and gesture, but confirmed to JT (in tones loud enough for the band to hear) that Enjoy the Silence was their best song ever. Biatch, please. Add the fact that this gal and her boy and two other couples on our row were constantly in and out on beer, smoke and bathroom runs, it was hard for us to get into any kind of zone for very long, even if Dave had been giving us all we ever wanted or needed.

Hey, Martin, thanks again!

There were, however, moments of absolute magic. Martin L. Gore’s solo bits – including, among others, a piano only rendition of Home and the high-school-crush-mix-tape staple Somebody – had us both remembering why this band has been so great for nearly thirty years. And a few golden moments with Gahan at the helm were to be had as well; especially It’s No Good (which really got the crowd to thumpin’), the gorgeous Precious, a wang-danged kick about of both Sweetest Perfection and Personal Jesus and show closer, Waiting for Night. (Post show I rechecked the standard set list and they’d cut out a good ten songs. Bogus.)

Overall it was a bit of a massive let down. And really, the problem was Gahan’s lack of vocal presence. I’m not saying I wish I hadn’t gone. This was an experience worth having, and many times I found myself in the groove, bopping and clapping and singing along with the enthusiasm of a little 15 year old (are you people even getting these references?). I just wish that it had lived up to half my expectations, which were seriously generous considering the age of these guys, the rampant drug abuse of Gahan in particular 15 years ago and the aptitude for outdoor venues to really have a rotten sound.

But this doesn’t mean that Depeche Mode is a bad band or have fallen even a notch in my respectability. Sounds of the Universe is still a fantastic album and the legacy of their live prowess still something to be remembered with fondness. But if Dave Gahan can’t step up to the mic, I think it’s time to put their touring days behind them.

So, I’ve decided to provide ample proof that these boys were once a class act on stage. Make fun of synth pop all you want (Bill), but it’s not always easy for mere mortals to keep up when you rely on sequencers and drum machines (they did have a live drummer at this show btw), and you have to nail down your timing and rhythm with spikes. To me it was especially impressive back in the early, early days. See it for yourself…

Photographic 1981

See You 1982

Everything Counts 1984

Shake the Disease 1986

Never Let Me Down Again 1988

Enjoy the Silence 1990

Everything Counts 1993

It’s No Good 1997

Dream On 2001

John the Revelator 2005

1 comment:

Mark Wilkins said...

I appreciate your balanced review of this concert, but I think that Dave Gahan's weakness can be excused to some extent by his surgery in the spring to remove a tumor on his bladder. Assuming his recovery goes well, should he choose to tour again, he'll probably be in much more energetic form, but I have to say that it's to his credit that he made these tour dates at all.