Depeche Mode
Live @ Birmingham LG Arena
December 13, 2009
Review & Photography: Steve Bateman

Walking onstage one by one to ear-splitting applause and chants, beginning with Andrew Fletcher, then chief songwriter Martin Gore and finally the consummate frontman, Dave Gahan – who exudes captivating charisma from every pore of his body! Depeche Mode are one of the last standing bands to have emerged from the influential ‘80s synthpop movement, having enjoyed longevity and evergreen creativity throughout their storied career, not to mention, being regarded as one of the all-time greats of British music having now sold over a whopping 100 million albums / singles worldwide. In town to promote their latest long player, Sounds Of The Universe, as you would imagine, the entire front-row is full of obsessive DM devotees (affectionately nicknamed The Black Swarm) who have travelled from all over the globe to see them – some of whom can even be overheard discussing the numerous amount of concerts they have already attended on the trio’s mammoth Tour Of The Universe so far. Holding up lovingly-made flags, banners and signs, Dave once commented: “Depeche Mode fans demand so much from you. That’s what a Depeche Mode show is. It’s a combined effort and I always say it’s much bigger than us. It always has been. It’s like an entity.”

And yet, people’s passion for the group and wanting to know what songs are on tonight’s set list (an official live CD recording can be pre-ordered for collection after the show), could easily give someone the impression that this is the first time that they have ever seen their idols in the flesh. Such are the feelings that Depeche Mode continue to stoke inside their fiercely loyal fanbase, as their interstellar music means so very much to their followers. In their home country however, it sometimes feels that they’ve never really been given the recognition that they fully-deserve, with lesser acts receiving ‘Outstanding Contribution To Music’ awards over them, having not achieved anywhere near the same level of success worldwide. Maybe it’s because in The Music Industry’s eyes, or to self-appointed arbiters of taste, they will always be classed as ‘outsiders’. But for me, this only adds to their appeal, and tonight, I have to say that I’m absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity of being in the presence of greatness!

When releasing new albums, the band have a wild card track record for not choosing the most obvious comeback singles, and this theory can also extend to the songs that they include in their set lists, this evening electing to start with the subdued, yet soulful, In Chains. Utilising the dual / contrasting vocal talents of Gahan and Gore, this slow-burning number certainly seems to have taken the majority of the crowd by surprise, but by catching them off-guard, they’re instantly pulled in. So, what ultimately could have been a risky strategy and played out like a lethal game of Russian Roulette, works like a charm, as the reason for opening with In Chains soon unravels itself and comes into sharp-focus! Riddled with lyrical wordplay based around infatuation, ennui and suffering: “I know you know what you’re doing to me, I know my hands will never be free, I know what it’s like to be in chains.” It compactly sums up the existential angst, feelings of loneliness, paranoia, religious symbolism, depth and dynamism that have become synonymous with the group’s lexicon and bleak outlook on life. As well as demonstrating the hard-hitting, perspicacious and important symbiotic relationship, between their music and words.

Removing his jacket to reveal his trademark waistcoat / tattoos combo, then pushing his hair back ready to shift it up a gear. Dave is matched in the glamour stakes by Martin, who over the years, has worn some of the most outrageous outfits ever seen in music, but today, has donned a more subtle shiny sequinned jacket (with of course, regulation black nail-polish and eyeliner). The next track, Wrong, has to rank amongst Depeche Mode’s greatest songs, which is no mean feat, considering that it’s taken from their most recent offering. With a classic electronica feel, Gahan roars: “Wrong” several times over, before singing variations on this theme across toppling verses: “There's something wrong with me chemically, something wrong with me inherently, the wrong mix in the wrong genes, I reached the wrong ends by the wrong means...” Simple, but very, very effective! Often closing his eyes, slinging his head back, or gripping his mic-stand and pulling away as if each song has cast a spell over him, by the time we’ve reached the third track on the set list, Hole To Feed, Dave is now in full-flow.

Just from the whites of his eyes and the grin on his face, you can tell that this is a man who was born to be a rock star, throwing himself into fearless performances one after the other, or what he has called “the animal breaking out of the cage.” Blessed with both an amazing baritone voice (sounding like no-one else but himself) and an unrivalled stage presence / prowess, from the DM live experience, you can expect to see him dancing, throwing crucifix poses, spinning around with his mic-stand / holding it aloft, lurking in the shadows, interacting with his bandmates and teasing the crowd. Although now contributing his own songs to the band, he visibly relishes the challenge of being a vessel for Gore’s lyrics, singing every word like he has lived it and means it. Scrutinising the affections of the audience and making each individual feel like Depeche Mode are playing solely for them. And be it in an arena or when straddling stadiums, people sing lyrics back at him as if he has either snatched them from their soul, or they want to project their innermost thoughts and feelings onto him in return. The emotion is touchable!

Retaining all of the haunting and atmospheric qualities of the Songs Of Faith And Devotion album version, Walking In My Shoes, is supernaturally spectacular and supple. Whilst the icy-cool It’s No Good, has a salient / weaving synth line coupled with pulsating beats, that seem to move the track along at an unhurried pace, also echoed in the lyric: “I’m gonna take my time, I have all the time in the world” – an idea that cleverly segues into a thumping rendition of A Question Of Time. Before Precious, which was specifically written for Martin’s children after his painful divorce and sees Dave taking a more restrained / softer approach to singing, making this one of DM’s most touching, soothing and beautiful songs. Live, the guitar parts really resonate, and lyrically, it’s so personal that you could almost be eavesdropping: “I pray you learn to trust, have faith in both of us and keep room in your heart for two.” Production-wise, there are hundreds of glistening multi-coloured lights, a hanging sphere and a gargantuan LED screen illuminating the stage with interchanging film projections for each track. Concepts conceived and designed by long-term collaborator and one of my great heroes, Anton Corbijn, who continues to have a tremendous effect on Depeche Mode’s visual identity and mythology, in turn, validating and deepening the message behind their music.

After 7 songs, the first track from the group’s phenomenally successful / masterpiece album, Violator (which in 1990, was the right record for the right time and every home should really have a copy of) is given an airing. With its stabbing synths and intricate / imbedded hard-edged grooves and rhythms, World In My Eyes, has Gore joining Fletch on keyboards and Gahan making the most of the long runway ramp into the crowd for the first time, with plenty of joyful screams from girls (and no doubt Mum’s who grew-up with Depeche Mode too) as he passes them by. Afterwards, Martin is left alone onstage with a touring keyboard player, performing bare-boned versions of Insight and Home, conducting the transfixed audience’s singing as though they were his orchestra and he is either talismanic, or even a soothsayer, lending this part of the set the feel of a dramatic overture. When the others return, Dave jokes that the crowd will “have to give him more as they’re (singing is) starting to peter out,” promptly launching into Miles Away/The Truth Is.

A booming Policy Of Truth, proceeds an ominous In Your Room, before the arena blackens and the moving lighting-rig onstage resembles a UFO! An inflamed and primal I Feel You, then sees both Martin and Dave rocking-out, laughing and head-banging in-unison to the song’s dirty red-raw riffs. With Gahan releasing a final guttural: “This is the morning of our love…” that recalls the torment of his dark days in the early to mid-nineties, when he was battling drug-addiction. Now it’s time for one of the big ones, Enjoy The Silence! With the crowd clapping along during the intro, that memorable, melodic and imperishable guitar motif + Dave bellowing: “Alright Birmingham, come on, let’s hear you SING!” The audience oblige, by raising the volume and joining him on the flowering chorus: “All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, is here in my arms, words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm…” prior to an extended song breakdown which takes us to end of the lissome track. A perfect pop song if ever there was one and worth the price of admission alone! “Ladies & Gentlemen, Boys & Girls – Mr. Martin L. Gore,” proudly shouts Gahan, before they bow in front of each other.

As a younger fan myself, you would never think that the band has been playing some of these songs for over 20 years, as they deliver every one with such blistering verve, that they are all given a whole new-lease-of-life. Never Let Me Down Again is a timeless (possibly even the quintessential) DM anthem and watching a sea of waving arms throughout the whole arena led by Dave, is a sight to behold – riveting stuff to say the least! The first track of the encore, Dressed In Black, is yet another stark skeletal outing from Martin, before a triple-threat of hits with Gahan back in the driving seat, snaps at its heels. Firstly, we have the industrial and insidious Stripped, with Behind The Wheel then rolled out in front of the bluesy Personal Jesus. Featuring the famous: “Reach out and touch faith” refrain, the group recreate a thunderous version complete with footage behind them referencing the iconic promo video, ensuring that they send us on our way with a spring in our step! There’s no denying, that this prime-cut now has a life all of its own and is far too big to be contained by any building on the planet! Rousing, roof-raising and off the hook, are the most fitting descriptions that I can think of.

After the track quells and evaporates, and with band introductions from Dave (including for touring bandmates), they then take a collective bow and bask in the glory, before he says a heartfelt: “Thank You very much, we’ll see you next time, goodnight.” After this evening’s astounding performance, there’s no denying that The Universe will continue to keep listening to The Sounds Of Depeche Mode with as much love and enthusiasm as the group have for making and playing music, for they remain a true one-off who stand alone. With a resilient ‘dare to dream’ and ‘in it together’ bond – tonight, the Basildon boys done good, proving why they are survivors and still going strong after nearly 30 years in the business!

A very special thanks to Rob @ Sonic PR, for all of his time and help.

Birmingham Set List

In Chains
Hole To Feed
It’s No Good
Question Of Time
World In My Eyes
Miles Away
In Your Room
I Feel You
Never Let Me Down
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Dressed In Black
Behind The Wheel
Personal Jesus

“Words like violence, break the silence
Come crashing in, into my little world”