Monday, June 17, 2013

Never Let Me Down. Again: Depeche Mode live in Paris

Picture courtesy of Depeche Mode/Facebook

If you know your Bowie you'll know that the second half of the 1980s wasn't exactly a bright spot for The Dame. I'm being polite here, of course, because as most Bowie fans know, the creative highs of the 1970s, and the commercial vibrancy of Let's Dance were unceremoniously reversed by the albums Tonight and the presciently-titled Never Let Me Down, and it's supporting horror, the Glass Spider Tour.

Many shudder still at the premise of these shows, yours truly included. It was an artistic implosion, intended to be part rock show, part theatre (though it would inspire plenty to do similar. Yes, Pet Shop Boys, I mean you), and preposterously overblown (viz. Toni Basil-choregraphed performance dance, excruciatingly long Pete Frampton guitar solos, and precious little material from before 1983).

My mate Danny and I went to the second of the two Glass Spider shows staged at Wembley Stadium, unprepared for any of this. Princess Diana was in the audience that day, notably sans Charles. As a devotee of the fine arts, she probably got it. We didn't.

What we did get was the British summertime outdoor concert experience of torrential rain. Now, here was where we thought we had the edge, as I'd brought with me - and, miraculously, was allowed into Wembley with it - a large golf umbrella. Don't ask me what I was doing with a golf umbrella when I didn't then and haven't since played golf, but as the heavens opened, it became a highly practical accessory. And a magnet for two comely young ladies who asked if they could shelter underneath with us. Of course they could. And then one of them threw up copiously over my brand new, now-formerly bright red All Stars. At least it bought us an exclusion zone on the Bakerloo Line ride home.

Which brings me to Depeche Mode at the Stade de France, the clear Parisian equivalent of Wembley and, like all other concert-hosting stadia, about as useful for the enjoyment of music as installing an expensive sound system in a car with a gigantic, permanently open sunroof. Except that Depeche Mode are actually quite good at filling the enormous concrete doughnut.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, is my first shock of the night. Although my 74,999 fellow punters know it already, and from the off make it clear, Basildon's Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher are here to deliver an infectious fusion of dance and rock via the racks of synthesisers (albeit now they're dinky little MIDI keyboards) that have been their hallmark, and an industrious, Bonhamesque German drummer by the name of Christian Eigner.

Opening with Welcome To My World and Angel from the excellent Delta Machine album, released in March, Ver Mode are here to trade off the adoration of a largely 40-plus crowd who are simply happy to see them, somewhere in the distance, obviously. The Stade de France stage is vast (just as well as Springsteen and the E-Street Band will be there at month's end), dominated by elaborate screens at the back showing arty Anton Corbijn videos.

Gahan is an energetic whippet of a performer. Not quite Freddie Mercury, but not far off, shimmying about the stage, wiggling his arse at every opportunity and twirling his microphone stand around like a cross between Rod Stewart and a drum majorette. This is a man who has died twice, technically speaking. That's how much of a showman he is.

Depeche Mode/Facebook
Next up is the moderate 1993 hit Walking In My Shoes, which brings the second shock of the night: Gore walking on stage with a vintage Gretsch guitar strapped around his neck.

For the rest of the night he changes guitars with every song, presenting an impressive array of six-string classics as if Richard Hawley was backstage handing over his personal connection.

The more concentrated, muso of the band, Gore is, of course, still the very essence of 1980s electronica, replete with silver skirt, bright blue nail varnish and matching eye shadow (get over it - this is nothing worse than Twister Sister or Mötley Crüe used to wear).

He is no axe hero, mind, but for the unreconstructed like me who still think of Depeche Mode as fey Essex boys stabbing one-fingered at synths on Top Of The Pops, seeing Gore stride the stage, pumping power chords into the crowd, brought previously restricted appreciation for a band who clearly are a lot more than my preconception dictated.

Since the opening song, the audience - including the wheezy types with the notes from Matron on the sides - are on their feet and bopping away. Bravely, this is no hits jukebox. Delta Machine provides the framework for the set, contributing seven tracks that intermingle with four from Violator, two each from Ultra and Playing The Angel, and four off Songs Of Faith And Devotion (including the Gore-fronted Judas and Heaven, in which he demonstrates a strong singing voice that, for artistic quality, is better than Gahan's throatier rawk'n'roll croon).

The lack of big hits rarely diminishes the audience frug, which only intensifies with the twanged guitar riff (I still can't believe I'm using those words…) of Personal Jesus, and a large number of marketing types in the audience mistakenly sing "Reach out, touch base" during its chorus.

After Delta Machine's Goodbye, the stage inevitably empties, allowing the band a quick reviver out of sight, and the audience an opportunity to try out their concert whistles. Gore reappears to sing the always haunting Home, leading the audience on an extended segment of communal singing which, for all its good-nature, makes you thankful that the drummer wasn't allowed a solo. If nothing else, it warms up 80,000 voices for Halo, which brings a moment akin to Queen's orchestration of massed hand clapping at Wembley for Radio Gaga.

Depeche Mode/Facebook
And then we're transported back to the very beginning, to the debut album Speak And Spell, 32 years ago, and I Just Can't Get Enough. Currently being used to sell Volkswagens (which may explain its choice tonight), it is a merry flashback to teenage years and awkwardly-dressed school discos.

For a song that appeared the same year as The Specials' Ghost Town was highlighting the social blight of Thatcher's Britain, this song by a band from Basildon, one of the Essex communities that would later be cited as being the shining example of Thatcher's revolution, delivered a contrast of chinking, beeping, thunking synth froth. And it still does.

Concert encores are highly unpredictable. Some bands drift back on to do one or two hits (unless they have a tantrum and don't reappear at all), whereas others persevere with more tracks off the new album, just in case anyone's forgotten the real reason they're out on tour. For Depeche Mode, their transition to full-blown stadium rock band is complete as their five-song encore moves on to I Feel You, which crunches engagingly away in a manner that proves U2 aren't alone at this game.

There is a circular irony to the final song of the night, 26 years, almost to the day, after my horrendous experience at Wembley for the Bowie tour to support his Never Let Me Down album, Depeche Mode dig into Music For The Masses for Never Let Me Down Again. It is as grandiose, as sweeping and as epic as any unholy alliance of dance music and stadium rock should be, synth chords and rhythm combined, and audience whipped into a pants-swinging frenzy.

And with that, they're off. And so are we. Back to brave the horrors of the RER back to Paris. 74,999 devotees and one convert. Who at least, this time, doesn't have the congealed contents of a stranger's stomach to ruin the evening's memory.

1 comment:

  1. My favourite band but it's a shame you can only see the big names in such venues. I once saw U2 at Earls Court and the sound that night was terrible which, given it's a band you've come to see, was just a tad disappointing. Saw the Mode last year at the O2 in London and they were great but even that was a little too large for my liking. The front seem engaged, the rest of us end up watching on a big screen.