Perhaps the biggest contradiction about Depeche Mode is that they're popular. 33 years into their increasingly storied career, the synthpop heroes are selling out arenas all over the world, playing songs that should have been killed by grunge, g-funk, techno, emo or really anything that has gone platinum since 1992. But here they are, fawned over by everyone from the Deftones to the Arcade Fire to Shakira, releasing solid new music and packing the $60 nosebleeds section (trust me). "Personal Jesus" has been covered by Johnny Cash and sampled by Hilary Duff's producers. So why the Mode, and not The Human League or Erasure?
Judging from last Friday's show, it's Dave Gahan. I'd undervalued his role in the band, and you might too, if you only know Depeche Mode from their albums. He's credited as writing exactly zero of their great songs and plays nary an instrument. In the liner notes and music videos, he's always handsome, stoic-looking and groomed, the spokesman for these gloomy goth cowboys purely on the fact that he has the deepest voice and darkest eyes. But in person, he's a transcendent figure, a seemingly effortless everyman who can express alienation and despair from tight black leather pants and a shirtless vest, the latter of which only made it through a few songs before getting stripped off. Perfectly chiseled at 51, he looked more Robert Downey, Jr. than Robert Smith, even if he emoted like the latter.
Like the top tier rock stars of his time, Gahan finds the magnetism in his loneliness and expresses it, channeling his Songs of Faith and Devotion into Music for the Masses, or vice versa. He can prance or swing his mic stand like a less self-conscious Bono, somehow without undermining the agony of "Barrel of a Gun" or "Black Celebration." A heated take on "A Question of Time" matched the frantic anxiousness of Joy Division, only moments before Gahan giddily let the arena sing most of "Enjoy the Silence." Lest we forget we were in the presence of a showbiz pro, he prowled almost every square foot of the stage, playing to even the worst seats in the house and bringing us to our feet.
Although Gahan is undeniably the band's star performer, it was not a solo show. Even on their most programmed songs the band sounded fierce, whether ripping into the industrial tones of "I Feel You" with the restlessness of a modern metal band, reimagining the first verse of "Personal Jesus" as a blues dirge (Delta Machine, indeed) or bouncing through "Just Can't Get Enough" as if they hadn't been playing it since 1981. Martin Gore, the band's main songwriter and primary instrumentalist,
proved himself an affecting frontman when he took the microphone for the
chilling "But Not Tonight" and "Home." Had he never met Gahan, Gore
would have been a fine lead singer for Depeche Mode, and they would still
have found success. But they probably wouldn't have sold out the