Sunday, May 17, 2009

Depeche Mode, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ramat Gan Stadium 10/05/09

In 2006, I followed Depeche Mode halfway around the world to see one of their concerts, and once the show was canceled, I was stuck here for three years while waiting for them to reschedule.

Writing about a DM concert is the toughest writing assignment I could ever have, and as I get older, it's getting harder, not easier. I choke up when trying to summarize the emotion and visceral thrill of seeing the best band ever, performing some of my favourite songs ever. The first concert I ever saw was DM on the "World Violation" tour, so every time I saw them after that, I thought about how Depeche Mode were both the first and last concert I'd seen in my life, bookends for my musical life, oh my how we've all grown and so much has changed. That angle is always there I want to tackle it. But enough corniness for the time being.

This is not at all like writing about a new album or single. The album will still be there tomorrow, and in one year's time. I can change my mind about it whenever I want, and discover new things about it that I like or dislike. But the tour blows through town and is gone the next day. After months of anticipation, the entire experience goes down in a few hours, leaving me bewildered and wondering how it could all be over so soon. it's all about the here and now. I get one shot to make it count. They only tour about once every four years, so it's like the Olympics for me -- come through on that day or else! I've seen them six times now, which seems like a lot, but that's spread over 19 years. 19 years! Depeche Mode concerts are the fence posts of life, forcing me to examine who I am and what I've done in the years since their previous concert ... oh yeah, no corniness. Let's talk about the music.

I can't tell you how happy I am to live in a country where "Enjoy the Silence" is widely considered to be one of the greatest songs ever, where almost every bar is sure to include it on their playlist. All this despite the fact that until last week, Depeche Mode had never played a concert in Israel. During the Second Lebanon War, Depeche Mode fan club members lamented the cancellation of their gig by assembling at the site of the concert and singing "Enjoy the Silence". The nightly news on National Channel 1 actually took time away from showing the ruins of rocketed buildings in order to broadcast this. OK, it was the final story of the evening, right before the top of the hour, at a time when virtually every newscast in every country shows something light and fluffy. But still, I never forgot that moment. Depeche Mode really matter here, I thought.

It turns out that I was somewhat mistakenly, or at the very least, overestimated the solidity of DM fandom in this country. This was more than obvious at the show as well as afterward, when every major news outlet was flooded with reports, photos, and reader comments about this historic gig. Fifty thousand people, many of whom were finally seeing this band for the first time, couldn't sustain their energy through the entire show, or even through half of the show. Some hits received enthusiastic, impassioned reactions. Other hits were greeted with much lesser reactions. The new songs, for the most part, earned almost no reaction, bordering on complete indifference. There were a lot of complaints, and a lot of complainers. I could have sworn that some of these opinions were coming from people who had never seen a concert before. Or is it really that surprising that a band who just released a new album might be playing some songs from it on their tour?

Even the fairly intelligent reviews, such as the one published by ynet, was marked by bizarre fixations on details of dubious relevance. The writer praised the beauty and elegance of the background visuals, but claimed that they were a distraction from the music. Silly me, I thought the whole point of going to a stadium concert was to be overwhelmed by a rush of sound, lights, video displays, and the deafening roar of thousands of screaming people. The writer can rest assured that there will be a tour DVD that may include those videos as bonus material, so that they can be watched at home, free of other aural or visual stimuli.

Part of the problem can be traced to Shuki Weiss, who nicely acted the part of the scummy local promoter by being widely quoted in assuring people that even though DM were undertaking a world tour in support of a new album, they were naturally not obligated to play any of those new songs here, so fans could be confident that there would be plenty of time devoted to yummy DM smash hits. It was just another example of shady concert promotion in this country, which is one reason why it's difficult to bring bands here. So maybe people were fooled into thinking there'd be a special Tel Aviv-only setlist. Nevertheless, we descend into ridiculousness with the scads of complainers who whined that DM didn't play "the hits". Just to be clear, when they say "the hits" they mean "songs from the 80's" (+ a couple of songs from "Violator"), whether they explicitly say so or not. Oh, and who are "they"? In most cases, they are people under 30 years old who barely remember the 80's and are searching for ways to relive through what they've only seen in pictures and music videos. They know a handful of DM songs, none of them released after 1990. They complain that DM focused on recent songs, even though they played one song from "Ultra", one from "Playing The Angel" and zero from "Exciter". Of course they played seven from the new album, but that's what touring bands do, you don't have to see them in your country in order to know that. The bottom line is this: when the first encore goes "Stripped"/"Master and Servant"/"Strangelove" and you barely react, all while complaining that they didn't play any 80's songs, then the problem is with you, not with the band. So let's dismiss "them" for who they really are -- crybabies who wanted to hear "Just Can't Get Enough" whose opinions are nearly worthless.

Even the 30+ crowd, who could be counted on for losing their shit at the start of "Stripped" just like proper fans should, were mostly muted for the new songs. They missed out, because the new songs sound fantastic live, kicking harder, ballsier, and funkier than the studio versions. "Sounds of the Universe" is turning out to be a real grower or a record, revealing more layers of sound and depth with subsequent listens than other Depeche Mode albums. It's not as immediate as "Playing The Angel" or "Violator", it's not laid back, understated, and groovy in the same way as "Ultra", it's loaded up with vintage synths like the ones they used in the 80's, but it's not epic like "Music For the Masses", or filled with jittery angst and in-your-face eroticism like "Black Celebration". For other DM tours, I was already "sold" on the new album before I saw the concert. I knew the songs and already had my favourites. The concert would simply amplify all my existing preconceptions in a linear fashion. But this time it was completely different -- the show sold me on "Sounds of the Universe". My perceptions of the album have been turned upside down and my old favourites have been replaced by new favourites. I believed that this record was "Exciter Part II", but it's not. Songs on the Exciter tour were fairly mellow when played live, but the "Sounds of the Universe" songs are anything but. "Come Back" assumes a robo-funk groove that would make mid-90's Stereolab feel jealous. The driving, motorik funk of "In Sympathy" has completely transformed the way I think about that song. Everyone who sat on their hands during the new songs missed out on appreciating some great moments by a band that continues to evolve in fascinating and unpredictable ways.

Of course, something needs to be said about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who are just a incredible band right now, who overcame terrible sound quality (apparently nobody bothered to properly mic the band or give them a half-decent mix on the soundboard, or to crank up the volume to stadium-sized levels) to deliver a smartly paced set of classics and soon-to-be classics to a mostly bored crowd who admittedly had many other problems to deal with in the form of scrambling to find their seats in this confusingly labeled stadium, not to mention queue for food and/or beer. I ignored these problems, found a spot in the aisles where people were dancing to "Heads Will Roll", and hung out there until the set was over. "Maps" exactly at sunset = pretty darned cool, actually.

The peak of the show, by the consensus of nearly everyone I'm sure, was "Enjoy the Silence". Excitement levels peaked all around me, but I found myself enjoying a very calm moment, maybe my calmest moments of the show. I didn't expect this reaction at all. I flipped into documentary-making mode, and wanted to take pictures and videos to preserve the moment for myself. I've seen and heard plenty of live clips of the song, and have naturally heard it played live in person a few times, and I always get a little lump in my throat during the build to the last chorus, and to the final and biggest singalong. I had never brought a camera to a Depeche Mode show before, and I wanted to photograph them and film them myself, no matter how silly and amateurish that might sound, that's what I wanted. So I calmly snapped more pictures and took a couple of minutes of video, including that triumphant segment before the final chorus.

I might have been more composed at the time, but when I view my own videos now, everything reverts back to normal. I get that lump in my throat. As it should be.

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