When the synth-pop revolution began in the early '80s, few would have guessed that Depeche Mode -- three androgynous lads from Basildon, England with a fondness for bondage gear and bubbly Casio melodies -- would be selling out stadiums almost three decades later. Album sales have lagged since the trio's "Violator" heyday (2009's "Sounds of the Universe" has scanned a modest 160,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan), but Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher still have the juice to pack every house during their 10-month world tour.
Die-hard fans turned up for Monday night's (Aug. 3) sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden, the first of a two-night stand at the New York arena. The mixed mass of hyper gay men, squealing soccer moms, swooning goth girls and even a few frat boys was awarded a dazzling electro-pop extravaganza worth the $100 ticket fee.
What sets Depeche Mode apart from its New Wave contemporaries, more than anything else, is that the band puts on a beast of a live show. With the help of touring keyboardist Peter Gordeno and drummer Christian Eigner, new analogue singles like "Wrong" and modern-rock staples ("Walking in My Shoes," "A Question of Time" "Master and Servant") became hi-octane powerhouses. The songs burst with pounding live drum rhythms, souring techno flourishes and gritty guitar squalor. Fan favorites like "Stripped" and "Fly on the Windscreen" stuck to their moody, understated programs, while "Personal Jesus" and "I Feel You" morphed into teeth-rattling arena rockers that shook fans out of the cheap seats.
Much of show's success should be credited to visual artist Anton Corbijn, whose often-titillating stage design provides "Tour of the Universe" with its big bang. Throughout the show, a massive LED curtain projected arresting eye-candy: distorted live footage, black-and-white art films, and one particularly naughty foot-fetish piece that gave the number "Strangelove" a whole new meaning. Still, alluring as the imagery was, most eyes remained fixated on the two men at the front of the stage.
Now recovered from the bout of gastroenteritis that forced Depeche Mode to cancel May shows, Gahan pranced, gyrated and crotch-grabbed the crowd into a frenzy. His baritone moan sounds as impassioned as ever, and his pirouette skills -- which he displayed during almost every song -- have only gotten more graceful over time.
Gore, dressed in a shiny silver suit he could have lifted from Gary Glitters wardrobe, also got his share of fan love, especially during a stripped-down piano performance of the ballad "Home." While the loudest applause was reserved for crossover hits like "Never Let Me Down Again" and "Enjoy the Silence," the concert's most memorable moment came when Dave and Martin strolled to the edge of the catwalk and delivered a poignant acoustic version of "Waiting for the Night," which lulled the crowd into a reverent hush.
Flashing lights and trippy visuals are fine and good, but in the end, it's the quality of the songs that counts. And with the arsenal of timeless, unforgettable melodies they have at their disposal, Depeche Mode could be playing their music to the masses for quite some time.
Here is Depeche Mode's set list:
"Hole To Feed"
"Walking in my Shoes"
"It's No Good"
"A Question of Time"
"Fly On The Windscreen"
"Policy of Truth"
"In Your Room"
"I Feel You"
"Enjoy The Silence"
"Never Let Me Down Again"
"Master and Servant"
"Waiting for the Night"