Music in the Present Tense

Depeche Mode at Berlin’s O2 World

By Sascha Krieger

First, let us go all the way back to March 7, 1988: On a cold night in early spring, Depeche Mode, at the time one of the hottest acts on the planet, played a concert. Not just any concert: They played in East Berlin’s Werner-Seelenbinder-Halle, a historic and by now legendary trip behind the iron curtain. And one with which the authorities were not entirely happy: while they felt proud to have persuaded the band to honor the country with a visit, they did not entirely trust the band’s massive fan base east of the Berlin Wall. This reviewer, aged 14 at the time, was among them. And he was one of many who did not score a ticket. For they were not sold but given to reliable members of the country’s youth organization ensuring that nothing unforeseen would happen. So what could have been a night to remember turned into a particularly dark hour for this author’s early adolescent incarnation for whom the band’s album Music for the Masses, released in 1987 and acquired as a copied tape from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had gotten hold of the album, was more than a favorite album. It was an expression of his own teenage angst and uncertainty and battles with one’s sense of identity. Years passed, the author moved on and so did the band. But there remained some unfinished business. Now, 25 years on, it was time to finish it. Depeche Mode are still one of the world’s greatest bands, spending much of their time playing in stadium. So a concert in Berlin’s O2 World, an indoor arena seating about 17,000 people, presents them in an almost intimate atmosphere, less than two miles away from the long abolished Seelenbinder-Halle. So this one is personal.

The first surprise is how well, the band’s show translate to a much smaller venue than usual. They focus on some basic visual elements,  particularly the triangle that forms the key component of the band name’s initials on their latest album and which is reflected in the stage’s shape and gets repeated again and again in the finely orchestrated but never overwhelming video show. Just like lead singer Dave Gahan’s pirouettes and hip swings and shirtless antics, the light and video show is all in the service of what really only mattered in the band’s history: the music and what it means to those on and off the stage. Which is what this concert really is: a celebration of over 30 years of music that struck a chord in millions of people’s hearts.

The second striking thing is how well the old and new tracks fit together. Depeche Mode are still – or again – at an artistic and creative high, their albums much more than nostalgic excuses to tour again. Even newer songs, such as “Halo” which the band play in a wonderfully relaxed slow version, the stripped sound of the opener “Welcome to My World” or the hugely popular, catchy “Policy of Truth” have become crowd pleasers. More than ever, the current version of Depeche Mode naturally fuses electronic and electric sounds, synthesizers and guitars, driven by a relentless drum, into something unique that transcends labels and proves again that they are, among many things, a true rock band. Whose musical spine is still Martin Gore, the band’s primary songwriter, whose guitar provides the music’s back bone and who, as a singer, provides several of the night’s greatest moments: he takes the mike for the sad and touching “But Not Tonight” and later performs a fascinating re-working of the classic “Shake the Disease”. On both, he is accompanied by a piano only and he creates intimate moments of companionship and closeness that let you forget the size of the arena.

But of course, most of the night belongs to Gahan and the full band, the threesome of Gahan, Gore and Andrew Fletcher completed by an excellent pair of drummer and keyboarder. And it belongs to the classics, too, who the band tackles with respect but not reverence. “Behind the Wheel” has gone through the house and techno movements of the 1990s, “Personal Jesus” has gained a garage-rock like rawness, while “Enjoy the Silence” comes across as a club anthem first and foremost. “Just Can’t Get enough” has a freshness that betrays its age and “Never Let Me Down again”, the epic centerpiece of this reviewer’s adolescent struggles, has regained an almost bare quality that take nothing from its haunting effect. The dark side is present, too: “Walking in my Shoes” and “I Feel You”, starkly rough and in-your-face remnants from the band’s darkest days, have not softened one bit.

Old or new: Depeche Mode are still a band that fuse their core musical outlook with what is going on in music today, constantly rejuvenating their songs, keeping them alive. It is music that comes alive in the present, on stage, it needs the interaction with the audience which is the lifeblood of this band. What might be posing for other bands, comes natural to them, it is their DNA, for better or worth. What they deliver at the O2 World is who they are, plain and simple. After a night like this, not all business might be finished.

Depeche Mode play a second concert at the O2 World tomorrow, November 27 and continue their German tour with shows in Erfurt, Bremen, Oberhausen and early next year in Mannheim and Dresden. The tour also takes them through many other European countries and ends next March in Moscow.

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