Notes on Depeche Mode 2023, Detroit & Cleveland

safe as houses.

Notes on Depeche Mode 2023, Detroit & Cleveland

The stage is dark, there’s synthesizer notes floating out of the stage like fog, three musicians are in place, and then, the drummer hits his kit with the kind of power you’d expect later in the set. There is suspense and tension and all of the good things you want at the start of a concert. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bunch of musicians walking out onstage and putting on their instruments in plain white light but I love a good, well-thought-out entrance, an emphatic beginning, an opportunity for the musicians to set their boundaries and mark their territory. The Clash did that kind of thing by running out onstage and slamming into “Safe European Home,” for example, it wasn’t subtle by any means and it wasn’t necessarily intentionally dramatic, but it was another form of staking a claim. James Brown did it by having Bobby Byrd recite an introduction, punctuated by the horn section, listing all of his hits.

I didn’t know I’d be watching for it but at the side of the stage, at the stairs leading up to it, there’s a flashlight pointing at a shiny white boot and while that isn’t part of this introduction, I am seeing it so it is. It’s a bonus I get for my seat selection, immediate stage left about 10 rows up. I know who the boot belongs to, I know that Dave Gahan has been wearing this incongruous footwear on this tour because I’ve been watching what feels like hundreds of videos on social media from the European fans who queued all day to be at the front. The algorithm serves them to me because I am friends with Depeche Mode diehards, and I have inadvertently hitched a ride on their bus this year.

Gahan is now center stage and the band begins the opening song on Memento Mori, “The Cosmos Is Mine.” He’s wearing a tastefully sequined three piece suit that will last just as long as it takes to get to Martin Gore’s solo spot, when he’ll shed the white button-down shirt and jacket for just the ensemble’s vest. He has a series of these with different colored backings, yellow and pink and blue (again, I know all of this because of the algorithm), but tonight is classic black. Gahan’s baritone is deep and rich, with more power than I had ever expected based on what I knew of Depeche Mode and of his various misadventures. He easily holds the spotlight center stage, before moving into action - he spins, he crouches, and he basically stalks the entire length and breadth of the stage at all times all night.

There’s a catwalk extending out into the audience, with a b-stage at its end. Gahan ventures out regularly along its length to sing key sections, to beckon the crowd to sing, to point at audience members and sing in their general direction. But aside from one song in the encore that’s performed with Martin Gore I think the whole contraption is there because Gahan needs room to move, and he never stops moving for the entirety of the two-plus hours of the band’s performance, except when he is not on the stage. It’s not that Depeche Mode hasn’t been reported on sufficiently in the media -- at some points they probably got too much press -- but I have spent the past week catching up on things and what absolutely no one talks about sufficiently is what a phenomenal live band they are, and what a thoroughly underrated front man Gahan is. Or at least he is now, and I am here now.

From my sidestage perch in Detroit I tallied up the visual influences: Bowie, Jagger, Freddie Mercury (the microphone stand aerobics especially, but that could also be Faces-era Rod Stewart), maybe a little Joe Strummer here and there. I also was not expecting how hard he works the crowd nor how responsive the audience would be. Gahan would entreat the crowd, invite them specifically to sing, but they were already singing loudly. Again, the whole electronic thing, I expect people to be moving around and dancing, I didn’t expect that sing-a-longs, I didn’t expect the waving arms at the end of “Never Let Me Down Again,” a thing that isn’t just the fans reacting but are the fans reacting to what the band is asking them to do. I know it is rockist and I am not saying it is better, I am just saying it is what resonates with me, it is what I am used to, it is my church, it is the thing that sustains me and warms my heart. It is a song about one thing [drugs!] that becomes another thing when it’s played in front of people.

The other thing that warms my heart? Boys in smudged eyeliner. Old habits die hard!]

I was not a Depeche Mode fan in the 80’s. I obviously knew who they were and I heard their music because they were gigantic and on college radio and then later alternative radio, and I was a regular at new wave dance nights. I liked jangly guitars, I liked loud rock and roll, I was not a goth although I had many friends who were. (I was the person who’d walk up and say, “So, we having a Black Celebration today?” and get the finger in response. It’s funny! C’mon, it’s funny.) I loved 101, the 1988 D.A. Pennebaker documentary, because I was at that young age already One of Those People who went to multiple shows on a band’s tour because the setlists were usually different and I had learned what I could learn from the repetition, the value of observing across weeks or months of shows. So I am coming to this late, but also? They are a better band now. Gahan is a better performer. They were a very good live experience but they are miles better now. We come to things when we come to them.

Besides, this was Depeche Mode in the 80s.

I ended up seeing DM in 2013 when a friend won tickets from a radio station and we headed out to Jones Beach, where we sat way up in the upper level. It was very warm that night and at least in the cheap seats we had the breeze coming in off of the water. I couldn’t believe how many of the songs I knew, I couldn’t believe how great they sounded, I couldn’t believe that Dave Gahan still had that much of a voice after almost dying multiple times. I didn’t expect the singalongs, I didn’t expect the fanaticism, I didn’t expect the big rock cliches I love so much nor did I expect them to be so good at all of those things. After that, Depeche Mode became another band I made sure to not miss when they were in town. Now the town is Detroit, which made the ticket easier to get by comparison (after Madison Square Garden, it’s all easy), and I’m in a much better seat. And when my friend A., of the Violator rose tattoo (now flanked by the Memento Mori angel wings) asked me if I was going to see them in Cleveland, I said “probably,” which meant “I will watch inventory when it gets closer to the date because I am sure I will walk out of Detroit and wish I could see another show.” But when she sent me an early morning text message late this summer that she’d found two floor tickets on the aisle, about four rows back from the catwalk at what was a very reasonable price, I said “yes” and made a mental note to pitch some more stories to cover it. (It was about the same price as a lot of Springsteen tickets I pulled and threw back.)

Detroit rock city

I’m glad I went to both shows not just because they were both great and I had fun and going to a show with a superfan of a band is always just the best because you get to take advantage of their knowledge and their enthusiasm by osmosis. I swore I was off duty and I wasn’t going to write about it but (I can hear you laughing, quit it) but I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I spent a lot of time post-shows looking at the European tour dates and reading every historical article I could get my hands on. At some point I had to stop, because reading about Gahan’s (and the rest of the band’s) excesses was a lot, and that man should by all rights not be alive now. It just got to be too much of a deep dive that I didn’t require for background, and I am speaking as someone who adores Johnny Thunders. And maybe that’s some of what I see in Gahan onstage, survival and triumph and gratitude. Because he doesn’t take any of the crowd response for granted and he so clearly relishes it when it happens. I have never seen someone take their in-ear monitors out to hear the audience so frequently. Like, Martin Gore is also obviously moved, but it feels different with Gahan.

Thank you for reading! Why not send it to your college roommate who loves Depeche Mode?

The other element of seeing a second show was that I got the alternate setlist, and by that I mean the two songs that get switched out: Martin Gore’s solo spot, where we got “Strangelove” and “Dressed in Black” in a deconstructed fashion as opposed to the standard full band arrangements they are all probably tired of at this point.. Just the amount of hits in the set is insane, and I think my favorite songs in the show only go back to 2005 and Playing the Angel, which yes I realize is 20 years ago but it’s not like I’m going to a show and only wanting songs from the first two albums. There also isn’t a yawning gap of quality or emotional tension between older songs and the new album, so the transition from the first two songs from Memento Mori and then “Walking In My Shoes” from Songs of Faith and Devotion isn’t jarring. I still don’t like the intro to “Stripped” any more than I did when Black Celebration came out and I borrowed a friend’s copy (it’s just too goth-y dramatic), but that’s at least, you know, consistent, and not a function of a song feeling dated or out of place.

The people I sat near in Detroit (who I later saw in Cleveland) had lots of running commentary about the Gahan-Gore interpersonal relationship and their interpretation of how they saw that playing out onstage, and I thought a lot about that dynamic in a band that has a primary songwriter that is also not the lead singer. A lot of my good friends somewhat sheepishly confess to me that they’re not Who fans because they don’t like Daltrey’s voice, but the thing I always push back on is that without Daltrey there is no Who. Townshend was not going to get onstage and sing those songs, and when he does sing some of those songs, it is a completely different vibe! I see a lot of that in the Martin/Dave axis, although Daltrey has never showed up at the recording studio for the next album demanding equal time for his songs, the way Gahan (allegedly) did in 2005. But it’s not dissimilar, Martin needs Dave to sing his songs and Dave should feel less inferior because he’s not writing lyrics. He has to get up there and deliver them, and no one else could do that.

I only learned recently that the new album’s title was already a concept before the passing of Andy “Fletch” Fletcher last year, which given everything that has happened everywhere to everyone over the last decade quite frankly makes sense. Fletch gets his moment during “World in My Eyes,” his favorite song, during which Gahan holds up his hands like he’s imitating an owl and it’s for the bespectacled Fletch, whose visage appears on the big screen. I particularly liked it because they don’t overwork the moment, they play the song and he’s up there and if you know it’s a touching moment, and if you don’t, or don’t make the connection, you don’t feel excluded or left out.

The inevitability of death expressed through art is an ancient practice, but I think it makes more sense to be talking about it and thinking about it, especially given how much excess the band has been through, the decline of the planet, the fall of democracy, the loss of millions of people from war and COVID. But it’s also another reason that going to see a band where I am dancing nonstop for over two hours is a balm in a way I have not ever experienced. But it also gives me unabashed rock and roll moments like the current intro to “Personal Jesus” (btw, “lift up the receiver/I’ll make you a believer” is 1) a perfect lyric 2) a time capsule 3) a condensed version of ZooTV/Macphisto) where Gore is on his Gretch, a beautiful guitar that looks as good as it is appropriate for Depeche Mode songs, and it’s slowed down, it’s a blues at heart, after all, and there’s twang and exquisite tension and then there’s the synthesizer, it’s still Depeche Mode, but Gahan then raises his arms and declares, “Reach out/touch faith” and the place goes bonkers. It’s fucking great.