Into the Pit: 172: Depeche Mode – Live at The O2 Arena SE10 – 29-May 2013

I think that most of us that listen to a lot of music, and have been in one “scene” or another have a bucket list of bands that they simply have to see at some point or another. I’m no exception, and in my incessant gig-going in recent years, I’ve cleared many of the bands off said bucket list – in the past eighteen months alone, I’ve cleared at least ten bands off it. I’ll be returning to my “bucket list”, as-is, at some point in the near future.

Depeche Mode
supported by Trentemøller
Live @ The O2, SE10
29-May 2013

Needless to say, Depeche Mode were absolutely one of those bands on the list. Like many people of my age, my first exposure to the band would have been around the time of Violator, when they were fixtures on MTV with songs that have endured to become electronic “pop” classics, even if they were rather darker than most other bands in the mainstream. And having missed various chances in the past, some concerted effort this time around meant that my girlfriend and I finally had our chance to see them live.

We managed to miss support act Trentemøller (whom I’ve heard a lot about in the past but never actually seen or heard), but for me the sleek techno that was the music in the dead time between sets, at least that of it we did hear, was certainly pretty impressive.

As a result, we were in a reasonable spot for Depeche Mode as they came onstage, although once again this was a gig interrupted for us at various points by drunk idiots, people barging through the crowd, the usual idiocy that sadly plagues any “event” gig nowadays. Worst of all were the small group near us howling for Personal Jesus in between every song (and continuing to do so after it was played), throwing their beer around and apparently having zero concept of the personal space of others. It is, frankly, behaviour like this that turns so many people off attending gigs, and as I’ve noted before, things are getting worse, not better.

Depeche Mode setlist:
Welcome to My World
In Your Room
Behind the Wheel
World in My Eyes
Should Be Higher
Barrel of a Gun
Only When I Lose Myself
When the Body Speaks
Soothe My Soul
John the Revelator
Soft Touch/Raw Nerve
Secret to the End
Enjoy the Silence
Personal Jesus

Home (Acoustic)
Halo (‘Goldfrapp Remix’ version)
Just Can’t Get Enough
I Feel You
Never Let Me Down Again

Anyway, as the band took to the stage (broadly on time around 2045), and headed straight into the opening couple of tracks from the rather dreary new album Delta Machine, the fear gripped me quite quickly that we weren’t going to get quite what we maybe wanted to hear, and in part at least, that’s how it panned out. There was a lot of new stuff – over half of the album in total, and the quality of it was variable in the extreme. Yeah, so Angel has a glorious, sleazy gospel-esque crawl, and hits a hard-hitting climax, while Soothe My Soul, once the chorus exploded into life, was perhaps the only time the whole crowd got behind the new material, and made me wonder why on earth it wasn’t the lead single. Especially as Heaven, which was the lead single, is a song that I could charitably call an “album track” and have done with it.

That said, slower songs from their back catalogue seemed to make up an awful lot of the set, and did a depressing job of stilting the atmosphere, and while there were some moments amongst them that had my jaw on the floor, there were too many others where I wasn’t far off yawning. The better included an entirely unexpected In Your Room early on, which I think surprised much of the crowd around us too. Better still, later on in the encore an absolutely fantastic downbeat take on Halo, which included elements at least of the extraordinary Goldfrapp remix of it, made for one of the highlights of the whole evening. Less good were the obligatory Martin Gore vocal interludes, which reminded more than anything that Only When I Lose Myself was not a single with great staying power. I didn’t even recognise the other ballad, although the piano-led version of Home was…ok.

This reliance on ballads and new material, meant that there an awful lot less room for the “classics”, if you will – and in addition there was nothing from Sounds of the Universe – an album I never really liked especially – which perhaps wasn’t a great surprise, but nothing from Some Great Reward and Black Celebration seemed to me to be extraordinary omissions that contributed enormously, in my mind, to the imbalanced set. The list of songs missing was very long indeed, but I guess with a history like this band have, there were always going to be songs missing, I just wasn’t expecting quite this many.

What made these omissions all the more jarring was just how much the atmosphere exploded into life when the “hits” were rolled out. The first inkling of just how much of a difference they made was after the slightly lacklustre start, when the pairing of Behind the Wheel and a turbocharged World in My Eyes nearly took the roof off, only to see the buzz disappear almost immediately afterward. As befits a band long-versed in stadium gigs, many songs got teased out far longer than needed (in particular Personal Jesus – while the guitar-and-vocal-only intro was great, the lengthy close-out was not), and I couldn’t help thinking that I’d much rather have heard a few more songs instead.

As well as all of this, the presence of a few evergreen anthems just proved, as our gig-going companion commented afterward, that the band’s songwriting simply isn’t on a par nowadays with their eighties and early-nineties heyday. Nothing they’ve written since even comes close to the extraordinary gravitas of Enjoy The Silence, for example, and I couldn’t imagine Dave Gahan allowing the crowd to sing the whole chorus for him – note-perfect, by the way – on any newer songs.

The encore, or at least part of it, anyway, rammed that home even more. Just Can’t Get Enough was a pleasant surprise, and it’s brighter, poppier core than the rest of the set made for a rare moment of sunshine from a band who invariably deal with gloom, and got something of a celebratory performance as a result. This was followed by the bluesy electro-rock squall of I Feel You, which whipped up enough of a storm for a final, awe-inspiring run through Never Let Me Down Again, which needless to say was greeted with a enormous roar once that unmistakeable guitar riff was begun by Martin Gore. It has long been my favourite DM song, and here was even better than I ever could have imagined it to be live, and of course closed out with the usual sea of waving hands that has featured on every live video of this I’ve seen.

The thing is, this was a great end to a gig that, sadly, wasn’t half as good as I hoped it would be. A band that, after thirty-odd years, seem to be fast running out of steam creatively, and almost seem hamstrung by the need to get out of the shadow of their “classic” period, with Dave Gahan’s move into more soulful material of late – his solo material being far better than recent DM albums – a lot of that new material simply doesn’t translate well to enormous arenas. So, in the end, I couldn’t help but feel more than a little disappointed by a band I’ve waited years to see live. Oh well – you win some, you lose some…

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