Depeche Mode is the world's biggest electronic band. They have sold north of 100-million records, a few million fans see their tours and their singles are ubiquitous with generations of alternative-new wave-dance fans, but in 2017, they are one of the most go-for-broke rock bands on the planet. Fear of backlash has driven broad political statements to the underground, but Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher are leading a charge emulated in beautiful horror on not just their most recent studio album but their 2017 concert tour as well.
Rock n' roll fans keep waiting for the next "big thing", a band to blow open doors and change the world, but what they're missing out on is how the Depeche Mode's fourteenth album Spirit is ambitious foundation shaker. In the wake of Brexit and the election of Trump, it is impossible to not to be aware of the volatile political climate. Art has not had a chance to properly respond to these conditions but Depeche Mode appears to be ahead of the curve with Spirit, the first truly great album to emerge in the Trump/Brexit era. Spirit is an album the disenfranchised, the disappointed and disbelievers have been yearning for. Instead of coming in the form of guitars-bass-drums, its delivery is svelte with layered keyboards, guitars, drums and an impassioned Gahan on vocals. Spirit is a searing commentary on egoism, self-righteousness and denial that has poisoned society, that Depeche Mode crafted fearlessly in their attempt to rattle the world.
When the lights of the amphitheatre turned dark, the Beatles "Revolution" reverberated throughout the arena setting the stage for a tantalizing evening of musical fusion. As John, Paul, George and Ringo faded into the breezy summer night, the members of Depeche Mode took their places on stage for "Going Backwards". The five musicians appeared as dark silhouettes against a bright and colorful splash of art that encompassed the stage. While Depeche Mode has always made music often associated with escapism, the depth of their catalog is broader with political overtones and in support of Spirit the band is tackling the complexities of politics head-on crafting a set list that has songs and themes playing off one another. The lyrics of "Going Backwards" wrestle with the political turbulence of our times; "We're going backwards/Turning back our history/Going backwards/Piling on the misery". Gahan delivered the song from his pulpit shifting from the front of the stage and the upper platform where he was often lost in the bright artwork. It was a deliberate move to sing a song about censoring progression amidst splashes of exquisite art. The most revealing aspect of the current stage is the videos created by visionary and long-time collaborator Anton Corbijn. His videos defined the band's late 1980s and early 1990s output and the images and videos created for the Global Spirit World tour nicely heighten the message and meaning of the material.
From the grim despair of the opener to the decree of "So Much Love" the band throttled with exuberance testing the boundaries of love ("You can forsake me/ Try to break me/ But you can't shake me"). Gahan removed his red coat and glided his way across the stage. Drummer Christian Eigner hit the skins with a propulsive body-shaking rhythm. The Jacques Lu Cont's remix' version of "A Pain That I'm Used To" was particularly effective with Gahan showcasing his dance moves while "Corrupt" was highlighted by Martin Gore's grungy six-string riffs while the video imagery for "In Your Room" mesmerized the audience as much as the music. For a band that easily has two dozen sure fire crowd pleasers, it was rewarding to see them draw cuts from overlooked and misunderstood records. Depeche Mode is in a tight cycle of releasing an album and touring every four years. Summer amphitheatre shows often find performers on yearly touring cycles that rarely change sets summer-to-summer and are in full victory lap mode. Nevertheless, Depeche Mode still embodies a bustling band full of creative activity. Some fans may be disappointed the set is not a full on "greatest hits", but the truth is their set lists have greater gravity than many of their counterparts. Each song is meticulously sequenced as part of the overall story and scope they wish to convey for the Global Spirit tour.
When the hits do appear, they often served as a tonic evidenced by the speckled synth opening of "World in My Eyes" which sent the audience into a tizzy. Even in his mid-fifties, Dave Gahan moves like a man decades younger and is still a supreme seducer. Merging the sensual with the serious, he is dexterous delivering the fiery lyrics from the stage, yet can he slither and snarl like few others. His unadorned and solemn vocal of "Cover Me" was a brooding highlight from a frontman who navigates the set and audience with great care. He has an ability to ensure the audience is standing in rapt attention whether he's singing "Cover Me" from Spirit or "Personal Jesus". He covers the vastness of the stage and does not use the videos as a crutch, but rather as a way to reach to the furthest spots of the venue so they are every bit as engaged as the front row.
Longstanding drummer Christian Eigner performed as if he was going to war on "Where's the Revolution" as the audience embroiled themselves into the communion of the performance clapping their hands in sync. Gahan took center stage in his most commanding performance of the evening encoring the audience to "get on board" in his call-to-arms moment, which they responded rhapsodically and making them an army of inspiration and this was the centerpiece of the show. "Everything Counts" followed and is being performed on this tour for the first time since 2005. Written about corporate greed, this was the band's first true anthem and thirty-four years later, it enthralled the crowd like no other song in the set. Gahan and Gore barely needed to sing as the crowd overwhelmed them. Maybe it was the melody, but I think it was the need to express the downtrodden nature of our world and when the crowd sang "The grabbing hands / Grab all they can / All for themselves after all". With the band in overdrive, Gahan, on bended knee, delivered a show stopping "Stripped" while Gore, Fletcher and additional musician Peter Gordeno converged musically with erotic synths and rhythms. For "Enjoy the Silence" Gore's nimble and sublime guitar chords crawled under the audience's skin while Gahan owned the crowd before the deafening guitar chords of "Never Let Me Down Again" made the concrete floor tremor. The delicately paced set reached ecstasy during this set closer with the crowd swinging their arms in unison with the band.
The encore of "Walking In My Shies" featured a video of a man dressing up in hair, make-up and female clothes. This was a tantalizing mini-film and put the song into a striking context that is relevant to our world at this moment in time. We should always be our true selves and to embrace whom we are. The entire performance was a persuasive political commentary and a reminder that we have come a long way as a society but still have a long way to go and it is up to us to speak for those who don't have a voice. The greatest surprise of the set was the stoic performance of "'Heroes'" by David Bowie. It is hard to imagine the new wave or electronic music scene existing without Bowie and the band pays their dues in a solemn performance where a black flag waved above them. The performance was delicate but devastating emotional, with Gahan sending a kiss the sky at its conclusion. The 135-minute show concluded with "I Feel You" and "Personal Jesus" which left the audience awash in uninhibited elation.
Throughout the entire show, I sat there and took in every note, lyric and video image. I felt shame, disgust, guilt and inspiration. We have let agents of evil slip into our culture while we looked the other way in the hopes someone would stand up and take care of it. The art Depeche Mode constructs is designed to confront the audience. They have created protest music that is sleek, harrowing and accentuate the dread we feel. Humans often look the other way, but Depeche Mode laid down the gauntlet encouraging their audience to be enraged, engaged and vocal citizens. It is rare for a stadium band with a career stretching four decades tackling these issues with such zeal. Make no mistake, the tour behind Spirit may not hold back in its dour messages, but the catalog lifts, serving as a reminder of the healing power of music and inspiring us for the revolution, for which Spirit and the eventual live album for this tour will serve as a perfect soundtrack.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Depeche Mode: Rock N' Roll's Revolutionaries