I don't envy any support to Depeche Mode especially at a venue as unforgiving as Wembley Arena. It must be said that DM seem to take very little interest in their support acts over the years. Most have not been what you'd call well chosen to complement DM's sound and most haven't even operated in the same musical field. Christ, even those that were electronic (like Electribe 101 who were famously canned off-stage at the same venue back in the 90s) can't be guaranteed a sympathetic hearing. So The Bravery, are well-named to take on such a daunting role. So how well did they fair? Well, tonight was The Bravery's last performance after three months supporting Depeche on tour. To be frank, their hit single An Honest Mistake was the only memorable part of their short (30 minute) slot. Still, they seem to have enjoyed themselves, not only praising the Basildon three as "Awesome guys!", they even went as far as thanking the catering crew.
Hanging around before the band came on stage, and surrounded by a group of very vocal but good-natured Germans, I noticed Anton Corbin stroll quietly past. He took up position on a small platform in the middle of the arena which was where all the live video mixing would happen. Mark Moore of S-Express fame was also seen wandering around, and the fan dressed in the 'king' costume (that singer Gahan wore in the Enjoy The Silence video) complete with golden crown deserves special mention.
The stage design looked, typically Corbin, slightly cheesy. There was some sort of 70s spaceship thing going on with three huge silver donuts concealing (I trust) musical equipment. To the left of the stage, suspended from the ceiling was a matching silver spaceship - complete with flashing lights and video screens, and the words Sex, Pain, Angel, Love embossed on the hull. (This would later be used to transmit lyrics and messages to the audience, the embossed words lighting up to match the mood of individual songs.) The six large video screens that moved around behind the band throughout were a presentational masterstroke. Sure we've all seen video screens before but they way they moved around, changing shape, this combined with Anton Corbin's creative live video mixing was an unexpected highlight.
I realise I've said something similar before, but these guys were so relaxed and chilled out compared to previous tours. They were having a great time. Even when the word "PAIN" lit up in hellish red letters on the dome as they performed a mighty version of Walking In My Shoes - taken from their 1993 album Songs of Faith and Devotion - the band's darkest period and lowest ebb. The time when Alan Wilder left, Martin Gore couldn't put down the bottle, Andy Fletcher had a nervous breakdown and lead singer Dave Gahan famously OD on heroin an was arrested half naked on someone's front lawn in California. A period that Fletch describes as "Definitely the worst two years of our lives". Yet all the songs taken from that troubled (though still inspirational) album that were performed tonight managed to be as powerful as ever they were.
The previously evident angst or tension between the band members was gone entirely. Replaced instead with a joyous and infectious sense of happiness. This was reflected too in the audience. Whereas in the past you were just as likely to see fans crying as they sung along to Dave, who was often seen crying on stage, here everyone just seemed to be smiling and laughing throughout.
This mood was inevitably carried through the music and performance too. In years gone by, the band would almost slavishly seek to accurately recreate the sounds from the studio recordings. The results usually sounded like accurate and powerful copies of their album counterparts. Now, they are loose to the point of improvisation at times (like the never ending conclusion to Just Can't Get Enough in response to an enthusiastic audience who wouldn't stop singing along) and slight timing errors - something you'd never have heard previously - but it mattered not one jot. In fact, it added to the atmosphere and they have finally, truly matured as a live act. Even the drums were not too loud this time around - allowing the melodies to be clearly heard in balance with the backing track and live instrumentation along with Dave's vocals.
What I didn't expect but what strikes you about all the songs taken from the latest album Playing The Angel is just how well they all work live. This in contrast to the Exciter tour. Reading this you'd be forgiven for thinking these great synth pop survivors have gone all soft on us. But you'd be wrong. Very wrong. They've lost none of their edge. A thumping rendition of old favourite Everything Counts was, without a doubt, not only by far the heaviest version (this was virtually industrial at times) they've ever performed, but easily the best version I'd ever heard - live or recorded. Simply brilliant. We were also firmly reminded of just how sex-obsessed and raunchy this lot can be with what can only be described as (admittedly 'artistic') strip show visuals adding to a full-on I Feel You.
Suddenly, an hour and a half had passed us by and the band were waiving themselves off stage. The first encore was a stripped back Somebody style performance of Shake The Disease with Martin's vocals and a backing piano being the only two elements. The second encore saw the inevitable, but nevertheless welcome, audience participation pleaser Never Let Me Down. This accompanied by images of golden corn waiving in the wind explicitly signaling the sea of arm waiving this song always induces. The very last song of the night utilised Wembley's new jetty stage and placed Dave and Martin literally back to back in among the audience in an a cappella rendition of Goodnight Lovers.
The mid-life crisis apparently over and done with, Depeche Mode remain one of the UK's greatest live acts and as such continue to be essential live viewing.
Photos: Yuko Iwatani