Depeche Mode opened a stunning show with a new song called “Going Backwards” in DC on Thursday. But nearly 18,000 people at Capital One Arena (formerly Verizon Center) found themselves leaping forwards with renewed love and appreciation for a band that commands unparalleled admiration from a deeply loyal following.
For their part, Depeche Mode did not let anyone down, surpassing expectations in a blockbuster concert, where charismatic frontman Dave Gahan in particular blazed through a 22-song set with a brightness in his eye that often glittered more than his shiny rockstar boots.
Thursday’s performance by Depeche Mode was simultaneously familiar while also full of surprises small and large. The band seized the attention of the very full Capital One Arena by “Barrel of a Gun” from 1997’s fan-favorite album Ultra — the third song in the set — and Dave mixed it up a little by seguing out of the song with lyrics from “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash: “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge!” Dave followed up the song with “A Pain That I’m Used To,” perfectly pairing together the two dark industrial selections in a moment of absorbing cathartic exhibitionism.
And therein lies the crux of what makes Depeche Mode who they are. Few if any other bands could spin dark pop songs, so luxuriously layered instrumentally upon the backbone of Dave’s rich baritone, into arena rock — but that’s exactly what Depeche Mode does. And the result was a live performance that was exhilarating and uplifting, as if somehow watching Dave and company give voice to the dark subjects of their songs instantly dispersed a collective internal cloud, soothing an inner beast licking its wounds within us.
While Dave appeared to materialize songs from whole cloth as if a charming cabaret magician, Martin Gore balanced him with workman-like concentration and skill, as if to focus on the weave line by line, on his guitar from stage right. As the main songwriter for Depeche Mode, Martin in some ways has served as the foundation of the band since its establishment in 1980, and he has emerged as an unlikely sex symbol for the band’s audience. Martin took lead vocals several times during Thursday’s show, bringing everyone gently down to earth with 1986’s “A Question of Lust” in the middle of the show and serenading thousands and thousands of people with “Somebody” (from 1984’s terrific album Some Great Reward) at the beginning of the encore. Martin projected sincerity and sensitivity, leaving an arena full of women with glistening eyes and hopeful hearts.
Lurking stoically in the background, Andrew Fletcher, the third side of the Depeche Mode triad, anchored the concert from his synthesizers. If somehow you were to overlook Fletch at the beginning of the show, he certainly made himself known by its end. A turning point seemed to come with “Where’s the Revolution,” the lead single from new album Spirit, where a tidal wave of audience anticipation crested and then rained down in giddy delight. Atop that wave rode Fletch, sparkling signature lines of synth throughout the songs that followed and thumping out hit after hit to wrap the set — “Everything Counts,” “Stripped,” “Enjoy the Silence,” and “Never Let Me Down Again.”
When the opening notes of “Everything Counts” specifically filled the room, you could feel the excitement shoot across the stadium like lightning. Hailing from 1983’s Construction Time Again, a roundly underrated album, “Everything Counts” was the oldest song played in the set.
A low rumble from Fletch’s synthesizer methodically unraveled into a dazzling display at the beginning of the song. Across the stage, Martin joined Fletch on synthesizers while touring bandmate Peter Gordeno followed their lead on a third set of synths. Touring drummer Christian Eigner held his own nicely, setting a pace and filling a space capably throughout the entire show. Dave paraded along the front of the stage as he sang, eventually strutting down a catwalk at far stage left with his microphone stand in hand to meet the audience for a long and heartfelt refrain to cap off the song. “Everything Counts” live captured everyone at their best, and you now accepted this concert was the best show of the year if you were not yet convinced.
Surprises still awaited Capital One Arena, particularly in the encore where Depeche Mode cover “Heroes” by David Bowie. The gentle opening notes of the iconic ballad echoed around our ears before Dave’s impassioned voice followed them into a soothing croon. The cover song accentuated the powerful fitness of Dave’s voice, which in part is what made this concert so good. Dave’s voice was strong. As the song progressed, Dave gave more and more to it, earnestly rising up to belt out the lyrics in a way that would have surely made Bowie proud.
By the time Depeche Mode closed the entire show with “Personal Jesus,” legions of concertgoers indeed picked up their receivers and once again were made believers. A healthy percentage of the audience appeared to have picked up their admiration of Depeche Mode in their high school or college years when Violator was album of the year. Like myself, those folks appreciated the timelessness of Violator and its songs in live performance.
Depeche Mode resume their tour tonight, Sept. 11, in New York City. and remain on a US tour through Oct. 23 with a show in Portland, Oregon. Do not hesitate to catch them if you have even the slightest interest in seeing these old pros transfix an arena full of people. Depeche Mode are in damn good form, and you’ll love every minute of their show.
Here are some more pictures of Depeche Mode performing at Capital One Arena on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. All photos copyright and courtesy of Ben Eisendrath. (Follow Ben on Instagram+Twitter: ConspiracyCaptures/GrillworksBen)