Saturday, May 11, 2013

Depeche Mode, Booka Shade @ Park Hayarkon

What a difference a few years and a change of venue makes.

In retrospect, "Sounds of the Universe", with its throwback to twinkly 80's electro pop and impressive collection of vintage synths, was not the album to back Depeche Mode on a huge stadium tour where they played the consistently largest venues of their career.

Their concert in Ramat Gan Stadium that opened the tour was a deliriously promoted show, fed by the narrative of Depeche Mode finally playing their first concert in Israel after two previous cancellations, including one on mere days notice in '06. They packed fifty thousand people into a stadium, one of the largest of the tour, and the anticipation was at a fever pitch.

The band was game, and did the best they could with the material they had, minus a few noticeable slip ups that can be attributed to the opening of the tour.  But the spaciousness and poor acoustics of the venue hurt the atmosphere a lot.  And the casual fans who packed the stadium, many of whom hadn't heard the new album and thought they were in for a night of 80's nostalgia, dragged the show down even further.  Look, there's absolutely nothing wrong with being a casual fan, and there's nothing wrong with having high standards when you pay good money for a ticket and expect to be entertained.  But at some point you have to meet the band halfway.  Great concerts are made when band and audience feed off each other.  The local media hasn't learned that lesson, even four years later.  Most of the press leading up to this week's concert blamed Depeche Mode for having a sub-par night and not tailoring their set list to the "needs" of the fans.

Park HaYarkon is a completely different kind of venue.  It's not much more than a sectioned off part of a huge city park.  But it's a natural concert venue in that it's situated in a bowl shaped area of the park, providing a natural enclosure for both the crowd and the sounds emanating from the stage.  For me, this was the first time seeing Depeche Mode in a general admission venue, where I could stand among thousands of people at stage level.  Somehow, even though I've been a fan of Depeche Mode roughly as long as I've been a paying music customer, I'd never shelled out big money for the best seating or followed them to see a show in a city I wasn't living in.  I'd just patiently waited for them to come to town and usually stood in the back away from the epicentre of all the craziness and general bedlam.  And that was still true on this night.  I didn't open my wallet for the golden tickets where you could stand in the roped off area directly in front of the stage and around the catwalk, but I arrived relatively early to get a spot in the next closest tier.  Baby steps, even after 23 years.

Some of the local papers (*ahemYisraelHayom*) incorrectly reported that the opening act would be a DJ set, because of course all artists associated with techno don't play live, they spin records.  That was one of just many reasons that many people seemed oblivious to the fact that Booka Shade was playing live and not just queuing up files on their computers.  It was going to take more than the occasional shout out to the crowd and some sparse live percussion to get the message across to people who have never seen live techno, let alone live techno in a huge park.  The percussion seemed to function more as a spectacle for a live setting, merely something to make the stage look busier than it was, rather than a key element of the music.  But the songs they played, many of which was announced as new music by the duo, wouldn't disappoint anyone familiar with their style.

During Booka Shade's set I was interviewed by a reporter from the Jerusalem Post who was searching for superfans who had flown in just for the concert.  My Violator shirt that I bought at their 1990 concert tipped her off (note: this is my one exception to the "never wear concert t-shirts to concerts rule).  She asked me a few questions even though I wasn't the out of towner she was looking for.  She asked whether I'd been to the concert four years ago, I said yes.  She asked what I thought about  it, and I gave my diplomatic opinion.  She asked what I was hoping for from tonight's show, I said I hoped the crowd would be more energetic and not just wait around to hear "Just Can't Get Enough".  I told her she could quote me on that.  The next day, a review of the concert appeared in the paper but I'm not sure if it was written by her. It's written more in the style of a gushing fan than a more neutral and passive newspaper reporter, but that's OK sometimes.  Most of the JPost's music reporting comes across as something sloppily written and edited by high school students, but this review was a lot more sincere and accurate than most of the ones they publish.

I'd heard Depeche Mode's short, widely circulated sets that were recorded at Letterman's studio and in Austria, but I purposely hadn't looked at the setlist from the warm up gig in Nice a few days earlier.  Wanting to be surprised on the first night of the tour proper is a good thing.  I wasn't exactly blown away.  Dave Gahan's singing seemed tentative, as if he wasn't sure how hard to push his voice.  The new songs, save for "Soothe My Soul", didn't sound stadium-ready.  But sometimes, and especially at the Depeche Mode shows I've been to, being at the show among thousands of fans can transform the songs into something else.  And a live set by a band with a deep catalogue, much like a DJ set, needs time to develop.  The compressed, 45-minute version might not give them the time to communicate all they need to say.

As for the concert ... well, the atmosphere couldn't have been more different from '09.  Everyone around me was singing, sometimes loud enough to drown out Dave Gahan. People standing way at the back of the arena were waving, clapping, getting emotionally invested in the show.  It wasn't a crowd of curiosity seekers, it was a crowd of fans.  You can't say enough about what kind of difference that makes -- to be dropped into a pool of thirty thousand people who want to see a band just as badly as you do.  

Even though their concerts have been more based around live instruments than synths going on fifteen years, I've always considered their live setup a bit of a work in progress.  Sometimes they've toured with singers, sometimes not.  Sometimes they've leaned heavily on visuals and elaborate stage designs, sometimes not. In the past the live instruments seemed like embellishments (not a criticism) on top of the synth and other pre-programmed components. For instance, it seemed like Martin Gore started focusing on the guitar not because it was an essential addition to their live sound, but because he wanted to do something different after fifteen years of standing behind keyboards.  But now their transformation into an actual rock and roll band feels complete.  It's mostly in the small details -- the ultra slow burning into to "Personal Jesus", the semi-improvised intro to "I Feel You", the always expanding repetoire of ballads sung by Martin Gore -- but they've never sounded less constrained by their electronic equipment or more freer with what they can play and how they can play it..

This is also the first Depeche Mode tour in twenty years that doesn't feel like a "new album" set and a "greatest hits set" stitched together at the hip.  It hardly seems possible for a band going on thirty years.  First, if a band wants their fans to take their new songs seriously, rather than a part of the show to be tolerated while they wait for the proper hits, then they need to treat them seriously. That means spreading them evenly throughout the set, mixed among the more well-known songs.  It means making gutsy decisions like picking "Goodbye" to not only close the set, but as a follow-up to arguably their two most popular songs, "Enjoy the Silence" and "Personal Jesus".  It means choosing to play older songs like "When the Body Speaks", "Black Celebration", and "Only When I Lose Myself" because they mesh well with the darkened robo-funk of "Delta Machine" and not only because they're songs that all their fans would recognize.  The updated arrangement of "Only When I Lose Myself" was especially great, overhauling the song from an oft-forgotten single to a tune that would have fit in perfectly on the still-underrated "Ultra" (where it probably should have appeared all along).   I used to think that "Playing The Angel" was their latter day "Black Celebration", but now it feels like "Delta Machine" is the true heir apparent to their darkness-obsessed 80's selves.  

Like with any great concert, there were plenty of surprises.  The re-appearances of "When The Body Speaks" and "Only When I Lose Myself" were bold and unexpected song choices.  "A Pain That I'm Used To" and "Halo" were brought back in radically different forms -- as "covers" of the Jacques Lu Cont and Goldfrapp remixes respectively -- that fit the bluesier style of "Delta Machine" much better than the original versions would have.  The end of "Should Be Higher" turned into a call-and-response singalong that prompted the kind of audience participation that Depeche Mode were striving for but couldn't quite reach with a then-new song like "Peace" on their last tour.

The stage set was almost absurdly basic.  The space pods from "Touring the Angel" and even the minimalist hanging globe from "Tour of the Universe" are but a distant memory.  Even the tour videos, done in Anton Corbijn's easily recognizable style, were used only occasionally. The video screens mostly projected live images of the band from various angles, as if they were ... a real rock band!  The energy in the park perhaps faded a bit toward the end, but it was a very long performance (2 h 15 min including a five song encore), although that's not really an excuse because the band weren't showing the slightest bit of strain.  Everyone got to hear what was "denied" them in '09 -- namely  "Just Can't Get Enough" -- but people in my section seemed relatively unenthusiastic.  They'd read the advance press and knew it was coming, but plenty of other songs were more hotly anticipated.  

Depeche Mode shows won't ever again be black-clad mobs of insanity bordering on near riots.  Maybe that's still the way it is in certain cities, but in most places you'll expect to find a mix of teenagers looking to see legends in action and children of the 80's who go to cheer on their heroes like they did in the old days.  The older generation might even be bringing their kids to the concerts, after all Depeche Mode have certainly reached that level where they transcend generation gaps.  But in many ways, things are a lot better now.  A sea of camera phones light up the darkened park like a starry night, no more so than during a typically transcendent "Enjoy the Silence".  At the end of "Never Let Me Down Again", those who weren't waving their arms in unison with Dave Gahan were trying to capture the moment on their smart phones (along with plenty of others, I was doing both). 

But most importantly, Depeche Mode are a much more well-rounded, dynamic and enrapturing live band than they were in the 80's.  Journalists used to rip on them for putting on a supposedly boring show, after all, it was just "three guys standing behind keyboards while the fourth guy sings".  They never understood that the spectacle of twenty thousand people showing possibly unhealthy devotion to a band to the point where they'd dress like them and follow them everywhere was exactly what Depeche Mode concerts were all about.  Not guitar solos and light shows or anything like that.  Maybe they really are entering their Rolling Stones period, where the danger is long gone and they can settle into a cycle of endless touring behind an armful of hits that anybody can sing.  But unlike the Stones, or nearly any band in music history that been together for as long as they have, Depeche Mode are still evolving with every album, both on record and on the stage.  Amazingly, they might have finally perfected this rock and roll thing after thirty years.  Or will everything have changed again by 2017?  I can't wait to find out. 

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