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Sunday, November 18 , 2018, 1:50 pm | Fair with Haze 66º


Paul Mann: Depeche Mode Overcomes Adversity

It has been a tough summer for the band, but it bounces back for a sold-out show at the Santa Barbara Bowl

The most anticipated music event of the season took place Thursday at the Santa Barbara Bowl. The Depeche Mode concert sold out within minutes when tickets went on sale several months ago. Excited fans arrived early for the show, representing several generations of music lovers.

Swedish opening act Peter Bjorn and John walked wearily on stage in the late afternoon. Although the band has recorded six albums in the decade they have been together, most music fans know them only from their 2006 hit song, “Young Folks.” Benefiting from the guest vocals of Victoria Bergsman of The Concretes, it became their only worldwide hit song.

The band played likable retro-sounding tunes in their short set, but seemed to be lacking something in the trio — perhaps a Paul or Ringo? I’m not sure, but the guest bongo player who looked like Marilyn Manson wasn’t the answer. The band had flashes of brilliance, especially in their final jam. For the most part, however, they just seemed to prod through the set like sleepless zombies. Tour life definitely seems to be taking a toll on these not-so-young folks. Fans applauded politely as many already had found their seats in anticipation of the main event.

As evening fell and the lights went out in anticipation of the opening song, Depeche Mode fans became ecstatic, screaming and cheering in the darkness. There were many reasons for the excitement, including the fact that the Santa Barbara Bowl was the smallest venue the band was playing on its world tour, and that band member Martin Gore had made his home in the city for the past decade. Indeed, the band has recorded many of its most recent recordings in Santa Barbara facilities.

When the giant animation backdrop — which has become required rock regalia for big shows — exploded in color and the band sauntered on stage, the frenzied fans may have been excited mostly with the fact that the band had appeared at all.

It has been a tough summer for the group, especially for lead singer Dave Gahan.

Early in the European leg of the summer tour, he suffered from a bout of gastroenteritis, then was diagnosed and treated for a tumor, which led to the cancellation of several weeks of shows. If that wasn’t enough adversity, he tore a calf muscle a few months later in Spain, forcing the cancellation of two more shows there. Then, when the band’s extensive Southern California leg of the tour began a few weeks ago, Gahan suffered throat problems. The Los Angeles Times reported that he was unable to sing all of the songs he was scheduled to do in the Hollywood Bowl shows. In fact, Gore had to take over on several occasions. Then, word came down that the band was canceling its sold-out San Diego and San Francisco shows, so Gahan could recover.

So, it was with great anticipation and a sigh of relief that may have led fans into erupting in gratitude when the show began and Gahan started to sing in a strong, decisive manner. For three songs, the band played like the definitive rock stars that they are, with massive LED lighting and video effects for each song and a dancing and screaming crowd.

Then, almost as if it were on cue during the fourth song, the adversity continued. There was a loud pop, and the sound and stage went quiet and dark. For about 10 minutes, the band left the stage and technicians scattered like worker ants, trying to fix the problem. A stunned crowd politely waited. When the band returned on stage, sans the great LED animation screen in the background, the crowd erupted again in approval. No one much cared that they weren’t being bombarded by state-of-the-art graphics, as the band hunkered down perhaps more focused on the music than even before.

The band could have played with flashlights illuminating them as long as the crowd could hear them play. In true rock-and-roll tradition, made famous by bands such as The Who, the more adversity you throw at the band, the more intently the band begins to perform. So it was with Depeche Mode on Thursday night.

Playing, with a renewed sense of urgency, Gahan sang with strong authority and pranced around the stage like a whirling dervish. Gore played his guitar collection like a madman, a different guitar for nearly every song, with a fresh sound each time. He sang backup and solo, like an angel delivering his unique vocal layering to the music. Andrew Fletcher added his trademark keyboard signature, with layers of electronic sound effects.

I have known Gore for nearly a decade, since a mutual friend was married in Montecito. I don’t think there’s a nicer, more unassuming rock star in the music business. He is always a gracious host and a true gentleman to friends and fans alike. When he was still a drinking man, he would buy friends and strangers rounds of drinks at local nightclubs. He and band members Fletcher and Gahan liked to play pool to unwind into the night, after long days of recording sessions downtown.

Gore used to host a weekly get-together at his house to watch old science-fiction movies. He was fascinated by the soundtracks of retro films, such as those created with theremin, popular in the 1950s. There is a funny YouTube video where Gore finally gets his hands on his own theremin.

The sounds are integrated into the band’s new album, which is one of their most ambitious projects to date. True to their electronic roots, their new album, “Sounds of The Universe”, experiments with all sorts of electronic layering. The hit single “Wrong” on the album also has one of the most intriguingly disturbing videos that the band has ever released.

The music of Depeche Mode is two things at once. The first and most obvious is that they are an electronic band. They follow in the tradition of jazz musician John Cage, the godfather of electronic music, and Kraftwerk, the fathers of electronic rock. At the same time, they are a blues band, in the purest sense of the genre. Probably emerging from the pain of Gahan’s nightmare of heroin addiction, and the personal tribulations of Fletcher and Gore, their music and lyrics emit pure blues emotion. Perhaps this kind of musical inspiration is possible only from real-life distress and disasters. But the band has proven to be one of the most resilient survivors in rock history, with more than 75 million albums sold in a 30-year history.

The music the band played Thursday focused on two eras. One was their latest album, with all of its intricate new sounds. The other was the 1990 “Violator” album, which some critics proclaim their best. Playing nearly the entire recording, including some more obscure tracks, this classic, iconic ‘80s band showed they could ignore that entire decade of hits and still fascinate generations of fans with an explosive two-hour concert.

As the band returned for the first of their encores, the great LED wall miraculously began to work again, and was perhaps more effective for the final songs, after being darkened for most of the night. As Gahn led the crowd into arm-waving and singing chats, the band erupted into the biggest hit on the “Violator” album, “Personal Jesus.” Gore stroked one of the most memorable guitar riffs in rock history, and the hometown crowd went wild.

Lingering at the after-party, I watched as Gore and Fletcher were quickly greeted by about 200 friends and family, and then were whisked off to prepare for the following night’s show in Las Vegas. Let’s hope the next time they come to town that they get to stay awhile longer.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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