With this year’s release of the well-received Exciter, Depeche Mode has managed to accomplish something few of the great “alternative rock” juggernauts of the ‘80s have been able to do.
While bands like U2 and REM have become embarrassing anachronisms, and The Cure has faded to the dustbin of obscurity, David Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher have somehow managed to maintain continual top-40 credibility with an increasingly fickle listening public.
Originally formed by school chums in 1976, Depeche Mode evolved from the catchy synth-pop of 1981’s hit single “I Just Can’t Get Enough,” through the gloomy dance club territory explored on albums like 1986’s Black Celebration, to the grungy stomp of 1990’s Violator and finally to the well crafted, if only slightly atavistic, atmospheric soundscapes of its most recent albums.
It hasn’t been an easy road. Well-publicized member exits and rumors of a 1995 suicide attempt and drug problems of singer Gahan have plagued the band. But with the commercial and critical success of 1997’s Ultra and a smash single off their most recent album, DM seems to have bought itself yet another few years of airplay.
So while its ‘80s counterparts are playing on the American Indian casino tours, Depeche Mode can still fill a stadium. A near-capacity crowd braved the cold rain and wind to see Gahan and the boys’ appearance at Journal Pavilion on Friday.
Opening act Poe, still banking off her 1995 single “Angry Johnny,” got the wet crowd going with her trip hop-laced, angry girl rock. Her most recent album, Haunted, was released as a companion to her brother Mark Danielewski’s book “House of Leaves.” He showed up for some spoken word accompaniment duty, followed by a creepy tape of their deceased father — tres Natalie Cole.
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Despite the rain, Poe was energetic, and an enthusiastic run through the crowd lifted dampened spirits in preparation for Depeche Mode’s eclectic show.
DM opened with “Dead of Night,” off the new album. The song’s Nine Inch Nails-like grind got the notably young crowd on it’s feet, “ooing” and “aahhing” over the well-timed pyrotechnics provided by the storm behind the stage.
The distant lightening strikes complemented the band’s standard-fare light and video display. The large video screen played host to a variety of art and film shorts that at times seemed out of place, like the mesa still that prompted my friend Judy to say, “I’m a little jaded when it comes to desert scenes.”
Before launching the “Exciter” tour, the band pledged that this wasn’t going to be a “hits” affair — no “Stripped” or “Blasphemous Rumors,” in fact, with the exception of Black Celebration title track, the band played nothing from it’s pre-1990’s repertoire. But the enthusiasm of the crowd, despite the show’s lack of kitsch-value, underscored the band’s continuing relevance.
Though by now most were soaked, a few good sports in the crowd even mimicked popular “goth” windmill dance moves popularized by Gahan and his contemporaries in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The band wound through a healthy mix of old and new, including “Walking In My Shoes,” “Halo” and “Waiting for the Night to Fall.” The crowd roared as Gore launched into the electronica-laden guitar intro for the Exciter single “Dream On,” and, not surprisingly, the strangely similar 1990 hit “Personal Jesus.” Equal enthusiasm was ladled out for singles like 1993’s “I Feel You” and 1997 release “It’s No Good.” The intermission included a brief tribal drum routine, and a relatively uninteresting solo performance by main songwriter and guitarist Gore.
Through it all, Gahan proved he’s still a rock star. He spent the majority of the show sans shirt, spinning the microphone stand like a baton and inviting the crowd to sing along to the familiar numbers.
Don’t get me wrong. Depeche Mode isn’t doing anything new. This is well-traveled ground, and you have to wonder if 39-year-old Gahan really feels the teenage angst of the lyrics he is singing, but, like running into an old friend, it’s easy for the listener to tap into memories of emotions past.
To many people my age, Depeche Mode provided an important soundtrack to our youth, and it’s refreshing to see that the band has been able to successfully reinvent itself for its next generation of fans without imploding.