Along with 7 of my friends, I decided earlier this year to trek down from San Francisco to Los Angeles to see Depeche Mode at the Hollywood Bowl. Why? Because their SF stop was due to be at Shoreline Amphitheatre, and we don't like the acoustics there. We are picky folk! (Okay, so it was also an excuse for a weekend vacation!) Turns out we were lucky to decide on LA, because the band canceled the Shoreline show on doctor's orders at the last minute to rest David Gahan's voice. That was only a week before the LA show. And then, a couple of days before our show, they canceled their San Diego gig, too! Plane tickets in hand, we didn't know whether our LA trip would be in vain...
Luckily, not only did they show up to their Hollywood Bowl engagement on Sunday, no signs of vocal stress were in evidence. This was my first trip to the Bowl, and I was happy to find that its acoustics lived up to the Bowl's reputation, too. It was an all-around fun show, full of energy and creative visuals.[bxA]
The show was scheduled to start at 7pm, and I missed the opener, Peter Bjorn and John. Depeche Mode started earlier than I expected, coming on stage just after I arrived, around 8:20. They opened with their new song "In Chains". The audience stood up right away and kept its enthusiasm as the band played two more new songs, "Wrong" and "Hole to Feed", before launching into some of their many classics. David Gahan was full of energy. He seemed to especially enjoy grabbing the mic stand and twirling around and around until he got visibly dizzy, but he also wasn't above a little booty-shaking during "It's No Good". It wasn't until the slower Martin Gore-sung tune "Jezebel" that people finally took a rest and sat down. They didn't stay seated for long. After a couple more slow songs, the band launched into "Policy of Truth", and everyone was back on their feet, nodding and bopping for the rest of the night.
Visually, the key gimmick was a large hemispherical disco ball-like bulge on the main screen behind the performers. It sometimes just displayed a fish-eye view of the middle of the screen, but other times displayed something uniquely designed for it. One of the first memorable uses was when the screen showed a standing crow while the heimsphere became a giant eyeball, looking around and occasionally blinking. So creepy. Even for songs that didn't have pre-designed images, they didn't take the easy road with the displays. Every shot used carefully framed camera angles, black and white, high-contrast processing, and other live video effects, making for some arresting real-time art.
My favorite visual was for "Enjoy the Silence". On the screen were Gahan, Gore, and Andrew Fletcher in space suits. As each verse began, a different one of them would slowly walk to the center of the screen, where his head would be magnified by the ball. All three of them would then just stand there, staring wistfully off into the ether. I commented to my friend, "I supposed that in space... you can truly enjoy the silence."
They played for a good hour and a half before encore tease #1. Then Martin Gore came back on stage and began singing "Somebody" for the first time this tour. It's one of Depeche Mode's most unique yet ironically defining songs. (One of my cousins even used it for the first dance at his wedding!) You could hear the hush come over the audience.
This was followed up by "Stripped", and then "Strangelove", which featured the most.. lecherous visuals yet. One woman in a burlesque outfit lies on a couch while another woman in leather lingerie sucks on her feet. Strangelove indeed. It's more strange than pornographic, but the first woman does eventually take her top off. Quite edgy for a nearly 30-year-old synthpop band! On a related note, the visuals for "Personal Jesus" during encore #2 featured dancers in silhouette against primary color backgrounds; it was like a sleazier version of an iPod commercial. I wonder if that was intentional commentary about the apotheosis of Apple?
The band closed off their 2-hour set with a quiet duet, with Gahan and Gore singing "Waiting for the Night" together. It was nearly ruined for me by the guy next to me who insisted on singing along. I cupped my ears toward the stage and was able to mostly block him out.
I got into music pretty late. I only started really listening to popular music in late high school, and the first band I really got into in college was Depeche Mode. I'm not quite as obsessed with them as I used to be, but it was still great to have a chance to finally see them live for the first time, and in a venue with great sound that was clear and undistorted even though I was seated pretty far back.
Depeche Mode played the Hollywood Bowl again on Monday. They were in Anaheim last night and will be in Santa Barbara tonight before moving on to Vegas and further east. You can see their remaining tour dates and full set lists of past shows on their website. If you have a chance to see them, know that this here is a band from the 80s that's still relevant and interesting. They might not belt out quite as many hits as they used to, but there's no denying that they have at least one great song on their latest album. If you haven't seen it, take a look at the supremely disturbing yet supremely awesome video for "Wrong". Here's wishing David Gahan the best of health.