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Dave Gahan, known the world ‘round as the lead singer of seminal synth-pop band Depeche Mode, is one over-the-top performer. You may not know this, seeing how the act’s lore doesn’t exactly travel well among the generation Linkin Park built. But, beyond the phenomenal, if somewhat underplayed fact that DM still sells out arenas all over the planet, it’s a travesty among those who have seen the British band play that Gahan’s name rarely comes up among rock’s most charismatic and physical frontmen. He certainly made the case for it during his solo gig at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on August 25—one of two SoCal shows ending his tour’s American leg.
His pelvic thrusts, mic-stand pumping, Rockers-on-Ice twirling, crotch grabs, hip gyrations, ass pouting, non-lyrical yelping—and much more—are so prevalent and frequent during his concerts, you nearly forget all the other elements on stage. Armed with a formidable voice that has only strengthened and improved over the years, and an Ironman-like stamina rockers half his age would give up their artist development deals for, Gahan can command a crowd of any size (check Depeche Mode documentary 101, and watch him enrapture 70,000 delirious fans), provoking shrieks and sing-a-longs that pale those by future arena rock king Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba gobsmacked. In a way, Gahan is the prototype emo singer. But where Carrabba drowns himself in self-pity, Gahan has made his angst resonant and sexy. And that’s a large part of his appeal.
It’s no surprise he would record an album on his own, then tour liberally in support of it. While the ‘80s output from DM was solely the vision of the band’s songwriter and sometimes singer, Martin Gore, its ‘90s material reflected more of Gahan’s personality. Albums like Violator, Songs of Faith and Devotion and Ultra felt like revelations of dirty secrets, lurking in an underworld that didn’t bemoan capitalism and the irony of organized religion (as did the first half of the band’s discography). Rather, those later albums seemed to get their inspiration from blues and gospel music, as well as impressionistic moods and concepts. Songs were seedy, brooding and reflective all at once. Spirituality and sensuality found a common ground. DM had never sounded so desperate, and much of that was channeled through the pain in Gahan’s voice and personal life.
Much of that is also found on his recent solo release, Paper Monsters, and this time, it is his interpretation of dependence, struggle and redemption, not Gore’s. This partially explains why the gig at the Wiltern saw the 41-year-old artist at his most emotionally convincing. Even when he was at his Dionysian worst, you never questioned the genuineness of his performance. Every passionately delivered note and bodily lunge seemed compelled by the frankness and desperation of the songs, from the ballad “Stay” to the bottomed-out single, “Dirty Sticky Floors”, the former inspired by his daughter, and the latter rooted in his days of drug-n-drink excess.
Not that Gahan needed to convince anyone else in the Wiltern of his legitimacy. He was preaching to the converted, a 2,000-person sampling of an enormous cult following Depeche Mode enjoys in Los Angeles (hence the closing of the American tour there). While most of the crowd in attendance were there to hear DM songs, a good number of them already knew the words to the songs from Paper Monsters, and proved it by singing along. They were often able to match Gahan’s energy, and that’s saying something.
Gahan paced the show with a steady, growing transcendence, starting with most of the high-energy solo material, easing into mellower songs like “A Little Piece” and “Bitter Again”, while sprinkling the main set at the right times with DM classics like “A Question of Time” and “Walking in My Shoes”. Things headed toward climax during the feverish “Walking”, followed by the pulsating “I Need You” (with the addition of the falsetto chorus from the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”), the playful boogie stomp of “Bottle Living” (the second single, and best song from Monsters), and the ecstasy of the equally-bluesy “Personal Jesus”. The four-song suite could have rivaled the concert peaks of bands like U2 and R.E.M. The execution of the Gahan’s pick-up band—guitarist/co-songwriter Knox Chandler, former Porno For Pyros bassist Martyn Lenoble, keyboardist Vincent Jones and drummer Victor Indrizzo—sounded big league as well, and more assertive and urgent than the singer’s usual touring cohorts.
For the encores, Gahan kept it strictly on the DM tip, which suited the fans just fine. But for each moment of euphoria, another seemed awkward or forced. The first encore got off to a poor start with “I Feel You”, plagued by excessive gravitas from Gahan’s lack of vocal restraint. “Never Let Me Down Again”, however, was explosive, as if Metallica were covering it. Fans needed little prompting to take over vocal duties, as well as initiating Gahan’s window-washer arm sway—made famous from 101, and now a staple of every show. For the second encore, Gahan and the band went acoustic, from a too-lounge-like version of “Policy of Truth”, to the more effortless “Enjoy the Silence”.
The latter song was riddled by a chorus or two from Depeche Mode’s first hit single, “Just Can’t Get Enough”, but it was an apt addition, not just to further stir the crowd—allegedly, the uniqueness of the acoustic encore is determined by audience receptiveness—but in its lyrical implication. Gahan played for over 90 minutes sans his longtime band, and his faithful and devoted wanted more. That’s remarkable, given the motions most artists go through when they’re either a) coasting on hits during a nostalgia tour, or b) indulging themselves on a solo jaunt. This felt like neither.
Halfway during the show, Martin Gore was spotted in the audience. One wonders what he made of recent press interviews, where his vocalist bandmate has strongly implied he’ll participate on another DM album only if he can finally contribute songs and/or ideas as well, or the show itself. Surely, Gore wouldn’t have been surprised at the emphatic display Gahan exhibited onstage, but the confidence he showed by carrying the concert on his own, and the added vitality of the material in the live setting. Even if DM degenerates into one of those revival acts who tour off old chestnuts, its fans can rest assured that, creatively, Gahan is just getting started.