Well-oiled Depeche Mode does an admirable job of not looking overly bored in Vancouver

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       At Rogers Arena on Wednesday, October 25

      It’s true. You can’t go home again. For some, that’s a tragedy. For others, a blessing. Last night, Depeche Mode proved that old chestnut to a nearly sellout crowd at Rogers Arena, where it trotted out a wide selection from a massive catalog spanning an impressive career of 37 years.  

      The first time I saw Depeche Mode was in March of 1983, when the then-youthful foursome played the Commodore Ballroom. This was a very different band from any I had seen before, and I was puzzled by their stage setup. No drums, four keyboards in a row on stands, and most puzzlingly, a Tascam 4-track tape machine on a table behind them.  

      The tape started playing, and they trotted out in their effortlessly cool Brititsh finery, all sculpted hair and tight clothing, but quickly retreated back to the dressing room in less than a minute when a mix-up of lines to the console rendered performance impossible! A roadie rewound the tape, hit play, and they started the show over! Shit happens. 

      It was most likely the first time out of the country for these wet-behind-the-ears Brits, but they played catchy little pop numbers while poking solitary fingers at electronic keyboards, sang in harmony, wiggled about, and somehow convinced a whole generation of young guys to do odd things with their hair and trade in guitars for synthesizers in their endless quest to get laid.  

      Seemingly against all odds, Depeche Mode have since evolved to become a monster touring act, selling out stadiums and arenas all over the world, and last night’s show was testament to what a well-oiled touring machine they have become. 

      Opening the show was Warpaint, a really interesting quartet of women from Los Angeles.  Against all odds, and suffering the perennial opening act indignities of virtually no lighting, poor or nonexistent sound check, and a limit on how much PA resources they had at their disposal, they delivered a really cool set drawn from their three albums that had me intrigued right from the first tune.

      Smart pop hooks sung in glorious female harmony, combined with sonically interesting and thankfully non-thrashy guitar and bass playing (that at times reminded me of the Cure), Warpaint delivered the goods from the opening notes. Hearing humans playing instruments in real time was a delightful sorbet to cleanse the palate for what was to follow. Naturally, it would have been better to actually see them under lights and hear them with proper sound… This was their second to last show on a 9-week stint with Depeche Mode, and hopefully they will return to Vancouver and play in more controlled circumstances. I’ll be there.

      Then came Depeche Mode.  The 4 track tape machine is gone, but the concept after all these years is fundamentally the same. Guys playing largely single note keyboard parts and root position triads against a computer sequenced backing track, which was also synchronized to the massive video and lighting rig.  The stage setup for this tour had a catwalk above the stage, effectively dividing the video screen, that front man Dave Gahan used to theatrical effect on a few occasions. 

      The core lineup of Gahan, Martin Gore, and Andy Fletcher was rounded out by drummer Christian Eigner and multi-instrumentalist Peter Gordeno.  The addition of real drums to the live unit is both a blessing and a curse.  Eigner, who performed with a muscular and disciplined intensity, throughout the night, did an admirable job of playing to a click track, which is one of the most difficult things for a drummer to do. He provided a great visual and sonic focus. That said, even those tiny, almost imperceptible deviations from the rigid and unforgiving click track detract from that frosty mechanical precision that is so much of the Depeche Mode pristine sound on record.   

      While the other members of the ensemble exuded all the charisma of a filing cabinet (except for Eigner), it must be said Gahan has evolved into a truly masterful front man. Moving about the stage with his peculiar flailing hand dance mannerisms, it was as if an adrenalized rhesus monkey was leading a jazzercise workout in a Davie Street steam room. 

      Think the bastard love child of Richard Simmons and Richard Leakey. 

      Gahan’s baritone voice was strong throughout the night though, and he works the crowd so well and with such an effortless professionalism that all is forgiven in the dance department.

      The band’s 2 hour plus performance drew on selections from their new album, “Spirit”, as well as more recent outings and the occasional “classic”. Those hoping to hear “Just Can’t Get Enough” were out of luck. 

      The latest single “Where’s The Revolution?” is an interesting track that shows that the band is not afraid to tackle more complex themes as a response to the challenge of needing to find relevance in a modern context.  As an artist, there is the need to evolve and move forward, lest one lapse into the hellish land of the tribute act, endlessly playing only your old hits.  

      The downside of that is that not all the old fans are going to be receptive to new material that is substantially different. It was predictable, then, that it was the older, and more classic material got the best responses from the crowd.  Depeche Mode did a bang-up version of the heroin-inspired “Never Let Me Down Again”. Same with “Enjoy The Silence” and “Everything Counts”, where Gahan joyfully led the faithful congregation in sing-along prayer as they worshipped at the altar of the Church of the Electronic Boogie Woogie. Fun stuff.

      Now somewhere along the line, Gore decided that guitar should be a thing in Depeche Mode. He has managed to take the one finger aesthetic previously applied to the keyboard, and migrate it to the guitar. Within the confines of Depeche Mode’s music, this extra textural flavour is periodically welcome, especially when that one lick is sampled and played repetitively, but nobody will ever confuse Martin with Alan Holdsworth. 

      I suppose that is not the point.  

      Gore stood largely still for the proceedings, looking vaguely uncomfortable, as if the guitar was an unnatural thing that he was forced to hold while somebody else was doing something important.  

      Depeche Mode stripped down for a couple of quiet moments too, giving Gore a chance to get out front and sing.   In “Somebody”, supported quite nicely by keyboardist Gordeno (who deftly proved capable of playing more than one note at a time), Mr. Gore revealed a vulnerability that somehow made the plaintive and quavery delivery of adolescent poetry seem almost… endearing.  To his credit, that is not an easy melody to sing, and he pulled it off nicely, finishing just before the saccharine levels went into toxic territory.

      Hot on the heels of that near diabetic coma, came a somewhat flaccid version of Bowie’s “Heroes”, which never seemed to get off the ground. It had me wishing that Lemmy would rise from the dead, burst forth from the wings, turn his amp to 11, and show ‘em how it was supposed to be done. “I got this, son…”

      And of course, being the big arena show, there was the predictable and obligatory “Personal Jesus” encore.   Depeche Mode delivered a slightly ragged version of this, but the audience could care less, as Gahan shot T-shirts into the crowd from a small arsenal of hand held front man weapons, when not performing his version of a simian mating ritual. 

      All told, this was the solid performance of a well-oiled touring machine that certainly thrilled some new fans and unquestionably left others disappointed and wanting more of the old stuff.  But after 37 years, what’s a band to do?  Besides, if they did it, every time they played “Just Can’t Get Enough”, Vince Clarke buys another house. 

      You can’t go home again...