Friday, May 17, 2013

Ranking the Depeche Mode concerts

It's been all Depeche Mode all the time around here lately, so if you're sick of hearing about them, don't worry, it'll pass.  I'm still enjoying the excitement that comes with your favourite band releasing a new album and starting their world tour.

I don't see as many concerts as I used to, so I might be writing more of these kinds of posts in the future, where I have to live vicariously through past concertgoing experiences.  If this turns out to be the first of a series then it's one hell of a test case because how can you possibly compare seven concerts spread over twenty three years?  Who changed more over that time, the band or the reviewer?  It's almost like taking seven vaguely similar bands reviewed by seven vaguely different people (seven people who were not very objective observers at that) and trying to compare them.  Nevertheless, let's give it a try.

It was only after gathering all the concert details and finding all the set lists did I realize that I saw these even shows in seven different venues.

The judging criteria will be these two simple categories, with approximately equal weighting.  Of course all of this is completely subjective.

-- Performance.  This includes technical aspects related to the performance (e.g. how well they sang, how well they played their instruments) as well as design and planning aspects (e.g. the songs they played, the stage setup)

-- Overall experience.  Did the venue help or hurt the show?  What about fan participation or lack thereof?  How excited was I during, before, and after the concert?

With that out of the way:

7. Skydome, Toronto, Canada, November 5, 1998, The Singles Tour 86>98

This is and likely always will be in last place.  Horrendously bad sound (like listening to someone play Depeche Mode on a beaten up tape recorder from 100 metres away), terrible and completely colourless venue, and subdued, even apathetic fans.  Depeche were still getting used to the live band setup (in particular, the drums were drowned out by the canned beats) and there were nothing unexpected or remotely surprising about the contents of the setlist or the versions of the songs they played (a built-in disadvantage of doing a "Singles Tour").

I wrote a review of this concert in an old notebook and really need to dig it out sometime.  I recall that I was disappointed (for all the reasons listed) but generally positive about the show and about Depeche Mode's future.  I was partly in denial.

6.  Molson Amphitheatre, Toronto, Canada, June 16 2001, Exciter Tour

I'm on record as loving the "One Night In Paris" DVD from this tour, and it's still my favourite Depeche Mode concert video/DVD after "Devotional".  As a way to relax on your couch and enjoy a Depeche Mode concert film, it's top quality stuff.  But seeing it live, it lacked the breathless excitement and adrenaline rush I'd come to expect from a Depeche Mode concert (or any other great concert).  The first half, featuring mostly "Exciter" material (still well entrenched in their lower tier of albums), seemed to pass glacially slow, subduing the mood in the arena nearly beyond recapture.  Martin Gore sang "The Bottom Line" -- one of my favourite songs from "Ultra" -- and I can't remember a thing about it.  Overall I had a good time but this was the first time I walked out of a Depeche Mode concert and had a smattering of doubt of whether I'd want to see them again.

5.  Ramat Gan Stadium, Ramat Gan (Tel Aviv), Israel, May 10, 2009, Tour of the Universe

We've been over the problems with this concert before.  There were many obstacles to overcome -- bad acoustics, fickle crowd, set list tweaks (the number of songs from "Sounds of Universe" gradually declined as the tour progressed) -- but the sheer size of the crowd was something special, the new songs sounded a lot better live than they did on record, and the re-inclusion of songs like "Stripped" and "Strangelove" was a treat.

4  Air Canada Centre, Toronto Canada, December 1, 2005, Touring the Angel

I saw this concert during a very emotional and busy week, and if I hadn't had a bunch of other things on my mind I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  Looking over my review, it reads like a nearly flawless gig filled with peaks and completely lacking in valleys.  I wish I could remember it as being as exhilarating as the review reads, but like I wrote, I had a degree to complete and had too many other things on my mind. Details of the concert must have vanished into the memory pit, so I'm glad I recorded my thoughts soon afterward (and that's a big reason why I still maintain a blog).  The crowd was great (well done Toronto, this was a nice comeback), and me and my friends couldn't have been more stoked (we were all long time fans).

3.  CNE Grandstand, Toronto, Canada, June 22, 1990, World Violation Tour

I can't possibly be objective about this one.  It was my first Depeche Mode show and my first real concert, ever.  We were under the grandstand which was partial death for proximity and acoustics, but we kept dry when it started raining mid show.  The crowd was going INSANE and I'd never seen anything like it and might not ever again.  It was just a swarming, slightly intimidating mass of fans dressed in black who screamed literally every time Dave Gahan moved a muscle between song verses or bellowed "thankyou!!" or "letsseethosehands!!", which seemed to happen about every ten seconds.  I was under the spell of both audience and band, chanting and yelling like a robot from the opening notes, helpless to escape.

For reasons that have never been adequately explained, the "World Violation" tour was never recorded for commercial release, but the bootleg recordings portray a band still taking baby steps forward in terms of performance quality, even though the song quality was reaching its peak.  Somehow, I hadn't heard all of "Violator" when I saw this show.  Those were the days when I was glued to the radio and I didn't feel compelled to buy certain mega-albums (like "Violator" and "Disintegration") because most of the songs on them were staples of alternative radio.  So I didn't know "Clean", and I'm also fairly sure I hadn't heard "Black Celebration" at that point because I remember nothing about "Stripped", and had to fake my reactions somewhat to the first encore.

2.  Kingswood Music Theatre, Vaughn (Toronto), Ontario, Canada, June 20, 1994, 1994 Summer Tour

For a long time, I listed this concert among my five favourite gigs ever.  We were deliriously excited about seeing this concert, not least because we'd all missed the "Devotional" leg from the previous fall.  We were going out clubbing a few times a week to escape the monotony of our dead end summer jobs and music meant just about everything to us.  The energy in the audience was off the charts.  People couldn't control themselves, all these goth teenagers and leather jacket wearing twenty somethings turned into pre-pubescent boy band fans and wouldn't stop shrieking for ninety minutes.  I had butterflies in my stomach the entire time, the kind of feeling you only get when you fall in love or sit on the edge of your seat completely entranced the first time you see your favourite movie.  Primal Scream were the opening band and we went nuts for them too.  Primal Scream joining the tail end of the "Songs of Faith and Devotion" tour -- the debauchery jokes wrote themselves!  On this night nobody particularly cared about all the scary stories we'd read for months about the band falling apart and Fletch finally breaking down and going home. We even made friends with the people in the row in front of us and I remained pen pals with one of them for a few years afterward.  Modern technology has completely obliterated the concept of pen pals, but even in the 90's it wasn't all that uncommon.  But she was the only pen pal I ever had.

I can't put this concert at #1 in good conscience for two reasons.  One, they've gotten so much better as a live unit since then.  Two, I tracked down a bootleg copy of this show a few months afterward, as a favour to my pen pal friend.  I was in for a minor shock when I heard it again.  The energy and general insanity that reigned throughout the show was more than evident.  It was easy to immerse myself in that aspect of it.  What couldn't be ignored what how awful Dave Gahan sounded.  He was hoarse and out of breath on nearly every syllable.  He did a lot more chanting than singing, doing his best to carry a tune but failing more often than he succeeded.  It was basically every tabloid story about how messed up he'd become come to life and recorded for posterity.  Take a look at this concert recorded in Milwaukee about two weeks after the show I saw or an even better example, this one from Holmdel recorded on June 24 and you'll have a good idea what I'm talking about.  Witness a rake thin, sickly looking Dave Gahan try his best to survive the concert and keep the crowd involved (and succeeding beyond all reasonable expectations, a testament to his talent and willpower) while the rest of the band puts in a professional but unspectacular performance.  When you watch it back in a vacuum it all seems so obvious.  At the time we didn't notice, and no, it didn't matter to us one bit.

1.  Park Hayarkon, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 7, 2013, Delta Machine Tour

This concert just happened ten days ago, so maybe I'm not judging with a clear head yet.  It didn't have the calm poise of the "Exciter" show, the atmosphere of the "World Violation" and "Summer Tour 1994" shows, and "Delta Machine" isn't as strong as "Playing the Angel".  All they did was look and sound great, playing inspired new and old songs in front of an amazing crowd.  As I've described, every other concert had a notable weakness (either at the time or in retrospect).  This one did not, and Depeche Mode excelled in every aspect of putting on a great concert.


Sandra said...

I wouldn't categorize my 'enlightening' job at the Mega Maze as being "dead end" exactly. It was just mindless summer fun. :-) So many memories of falling asleep in the maze after a really late night of clubbing...

Yeah, that *was* an amazing concert experience.

Barry said...

Perhaps I was too harsh, although in my case I really was unhappy with work most of the time. Of course that made all the non-work stuff that much more fun.