If art and music are the litmus test for the current socio-political climate, based on Depeche Mode’s rapturous 90-minute Sunday night performance in front of a packed Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion crowd, these are trying and divisive times we live in.
Not content to simply play the hits, revolt and upheaval hung over the massively popular U.K. band’s 22-song set like a thundercloud that mirrored a world where reality game show hosts can rule the country, fighting tooth and nail with those who seek positive change. It’s not entirely coincidental that NFL players took a knee earlier in the day. This was a band on a mission to use high art and an impressive, multi-screened stage backdrop to push the envelope.
Early 2017 release, Spirit, was the most politically pointed album from a band that never really had been known for its subtlety regarding issues such as sexual liberation and religion. The trio of Dave Gahan (lead vocals), Martin Gore (guitar/synth/vocals) and Andy Fletcher (synths) — rounded out by an extra synth/bass player and drummer – favored darker, symbolic, mid-tempo cuts from the band’s nearly 40-year-old catalogue to fit the tenor of the show’s theme early on.
While many of Depeche Mode’s trademark songs rely on synthesized sounds and Gore’s expertly placed electric guitar riffs, a live drummer lent the requisite oomph needed to bring a more organic and visceral feel to the proceedings, ultimately a good and bad thing. It made many of the songs even better live, but it also meant that many of their early synth-pop favorites would be passed over for their latter hits, which may have left some clamoring for the more celebratory gems like “Just Can’t Enough.”
Perhaps purposefully, this is the heaviest the band’s live show has been in two decades when it flirted with industrial goth sounds during the extremely successful late-'80s, early-'90s run of masterworks, Music For The Masses, Black Celebration, Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion, all of which got airtime Sunday night.
After an great opening set from Los Angeles quartet Warpaint, the band walked out following a snippet of the Beatles’ “Revolution” and played a handful of charged Spirit tracks including “Going Backwards,” “Where’s the Revolution,” and “Cover Me,” mixed with songs from their later work, including “Corrupt” and “Wrong” from Sounds of the Universe, a bass-driven remix of “A Pain That I’m Used To” from 2005’s Playing the Angel, and a pounding “Barrel of a Gun,” from 1997’s Ultra.
The weighty mid-section of the evening’s set list dragged a bit (Gore’s obligatory mid-show spotlight, “A Question of Lust,” and “Home,” included), before picking up steam when the group unleashed the hits, much to the delight of the audience.
Political message firmly made, Gahan and company went to their bread and butter in the latter third of the night, starting with 1983 fan favorite “Everything Counts” from 1983’s Construction Time Again. The dapperly-dressed lead singer reminded everyone of his legendary frontman status, prancing and posturing to exultant reception throughout, his moves belying his 55-years of age. Simply put, the man exuded sex appeal.
Die-hards and casual fans alike grooved to the set closers from their most beloved albums “Stripped” (Black Celebration), “Enjoy The Silence” (Violator) and “Never Let Me Down Again” (Music For The Masses), which Gahan was happy have the crowd sing along to, more content to direct choreographed hand waves and claps.
The five-song encore cast aside any doubts that Depeche Mode might be losing a step as one of the best bands in the world. Gore kicked it off with the gorgeously sung “Somebody” from 1984’s Some Great Reward, leading many to tenderly embrace their loved ones. It was followed by a stellar “Walking In My Shoes” from Songs of Faith and Devotion, video screens poignantly depicting a transgendered woman preparing to face the not-so-simple task of going to the café.
A touching tribute to David Bowie, “Heroes,” revved into the one-two punch of “I Feel You” (from Songs of Faith and Devotion) and always thrilling chart-topper “Personal Jesus” (Violator, again). The impact of Depeche Mode’s earlier calls for revolution may have sailed over the heads of many who may have been there to dance in the aisles, but there was no denying the expert craftsmanship in how these alt-rock/new wave vets doled out their stylistic and exciting manifesto.
Revolution (The Beatles)
Cover Me (Alt Out)
So Much Love
Barrel of a Gun
A Pain That I'm Used To
In Your Room
World in My Eyes
A Question of Lust
Where's the Revolution
Enjoy the Silence
Never Let Me Down Again
Walking in My Shoes
Heroes (David Bowie cover)
I Feel You