Friday, April 24, 2009

Music for the masses

Talk about a block party. Last night, Depeche Mode shut down a large stretch of Hollywood Blvd. for a performance on the the Jimmy Kimmel show. Over 12,000 people showed up. (Everything counts in large amounts.)

Fortunately, I was able to get tickets from a generous friend who works for Disney. Since we had VIP access, we were able to avoid the long lines through security and walk right in and get a spot fairly close to the stage on the left side. Dozens of cameras on cranes all over the place. A stage with a decent light system had been set up with a screen at the back. On our side of the stgagem construction workers of a new building watched from the scaffolding. On the other side of the stage, the likes of Chris Martin and Christina Applegate looked on.

The band performed a rocking "Wrong" and then, after a commercial break, blistered through "Personal Jesus" with the crowd singing the "Reach out, touch faith" part. Gahan is a great front man who really knows how to work a crowd. Plus, dude looks effortlessly cool. Can't say the same for the leather-clad Martin L. Gore. Too much eyeliner and he'd tried to come his naturally curly hair in a flat-ironed flop that looked a little too Flock of Seagulls. Not flattering. But he played some great guitar all night and his backing vocals were perfect.

The band stayed on stage and performed "Walking in My Shoes," one of my all-time favorite DM songs. Then they played "Peace," which is one of the best songs on the new album, followed by "Come Back." On the album, "Come Back" is marred by too many electronic effects and abrasive noise. Underneath all this is a good melody that gets lost in the mix. But live it was tremendous. One of the best aspects of the new record is how the vocals of Gore and Gahan complement each other and they really captured that live.

Next, the band played "Enjoy the Silence" and the audience went nuts. They really jammed out at the end of the song with the drummer doing some interesting drum tattoos and Gore getting funky on guitar. The coda sounded almost like a remix of the song. Great stuff. Gahan thanked the crowd and announced the last song of the night as, "back where it all began." A few fans near us thought that meant they'd be playing "Somebody," but it was nothing that ancient. Gore started picking out a familiar guitar refrain: "Never Let Me Down Again." Gore made his guitar sound nice and dirty during this one while Gahan whipped the crowd up into a frenzied mass of waving arms. Best song of the night. A nice taste of the tour to come.

My take on "Sounds of the Universe": Better than "Exciter" and "Playing the Angel." But not by much.

"Wrong" is the best track. It's even better than "Martyr," the terrific single off the band's recent "Best Of," and even better than "Precious." Other highlight: "Peace," "Perfect," and "Miles Away," each boasting ear-pleasing choruses. There are several clunkers and a couple of other songs that I'd call "passable filler." As a whole, it's not a particularly strong record. Apart from the occasional great song now and then, Gore doesn't seem to be writing as many great tunes as he did in the '80s and '90s. The band's last really good album was "Ultra."

Unfortunately, Depeche Mode too often settles for Default Mode. Time for them to change up their sound. I'd like a producer to come in and have the band put away their synths and drum machines and instead bring in a live drummer and organic instruments such as vibraphone, hammered dulcimer, piano -- or whatever -- and try reinvent their sound. That process could be the creative jolt Gore needs to write stronger melodies again. I wouldn't count out Gore just yet. I never thought Robert Smith would create an album as stunning as "4:13 Dream" after the previous couple of Cure records. Late career comebacks are entirely possible.

Still a great live band; I'm looking forward to their August show.

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