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Live review: Depeche Mode at the Bowl

August 17, 2009 | 12:06 pm

Stripped-down songs and a bundled up frontman still keep it fresh.

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You needn't have read about Dave Gahan's recent illness to know that something was up with the Depeche Mode frontman Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl, where the English electro-pop outfit played the first of two sold-out shows. After all, Gahan kept his shirt (well, actually his black leather vest) on for the entire two-hour concert -- quite possibly an unprecedented event in Depeche Mode’s nearly 30-year history.

Since launching its current world tour in May, the band has canceled a number of dates as a result of Gahan's health troubles, which have included a severe bout of gastroenteritis, a malignant tumor in the singer's bladder and a torn calf muscle. Last week Depeche Mode called off shows in Mountain View and Chula Vista after Gahan's doctor advised him to rest his voice.

At press time, concerts scheduled for later this week in Anaheim and Santa Barbara were still set to go ahead.

Given those afflictions, you could understand Gahan's desire Sunday to guard himself against the chilly Los Angeles night. At one point the singer left the stage and returned wearing a sensible scarf. Yet if his wardrobe revealed that even rock stars are susceptible to the frailties of age, Gahan's dancing and especially his microphone twirling -- think of an Elvis Presley unafraid to embrace his inner disco diva -- suggested otherwise.

The frontman's singing was a somewhat different matter. More than once he ceded control of a selection's chorus to guitarist Martin Gore or to the audience, which was happy to take responsibility for its delivery. And a handful of high notes seemed slightly out of Gahan's reach. But for the most part here was a man determined not to allow infirmity to prevent him from selling a song.

Even the new ones: Depeche Mode is on tour in support of “Sounds of the Universe,” the studio disc it released earlier this year, and though Sunday's show featured the usual cavalcade of catalog hits, it also pulled surprisingly heavily from the new album, the band's strongest since the early '90s.

Indeed, Gahan and his bandmates opened with three tracks from "Sounds of the Universe," including "Hole to Feed," which reflected their still-sharp ability to build spirited dance music around thoroughly dismal themes. "This world could leave you broken inside, with nowhere to hide," Gahan crooned dramatically over a percolating industrial-rock beat.

Older material sounded fresher than you might have expected, in most cases as a result of the group's stripping down the songs to their essential parts. "Policy of Truth" zipped along atop a lean New Wave groove, while "Enjoy the Silence" had a raw disco-punk throb that demonstrated the enormous influence Depeche Mode has had on younger bands like the Rapture and Interpol.

For "I Feel You" and "Personal Jesus," Gore drew fuzzy garage-rock tones from his guitar, emphasizing the juicy contrast between his instrument's organic intensity and the sleeker surfaces of the group's computer-music rhythms.

After "Personal Jesus," Depeche Mode closed the show -- which by then had stretched to a second encore -- with a hushed reading of "Waiting for the Night," from the band's smash 1990 album, "Violator." It was an odd move, following an up-tempo take on what might be the band's biggest hit with a spacey, low-key ballad, but hauntingly effective.

--Mikael Wood

Photo credit:  Ann Johansson / For The Times

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