This is a huge corporate event that debuted last year. Today was the last of four days but only today had anything resembling an electronic theme - or a line up worth getting out of bed for. There were dozens of bands playing throughout the day across several stages but we focused entirely on the main stage.
Bauhaus dropped out of the line up in the weeks running up so expectations fell heavily on the headliners Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp - who were completely known entities. The wild card was Thomas Dolby - mad scientist of some truly memorable 80s electronic pop hits like She Blinded Me With Science and Hyperactive but also some more thoughtful and moving songs like Windpower and One of Our Submarines. I know some who are not willing to give stars of old another chance, but I've always been open minded and the genius of some, like John Foxx, continues in spite of the passing years and only proves that there's often still a great deal more to get out of these returns. Question was, could Thomas Dolby acquit himself with any amount of respect or would the whole affair just leave me wishing he'd been a distant 80s memory?
He was startlingly good. I've never bought a Dolby record to date but I can assure that mistake will be rectified pronto. The audience seemed to consist mostly of like-minded folk: people that weren't especially Dolby fans but knew a little of his stuff and were just curious. The response was uniformly one of delight (with no doubt some element of surprise at just how compelling this sounded). From the siren opening that segued into Leipzig is Calling through all the hits (bar, curiously his biggest, She Blinded Me With Science), Dolby was the consummate entertainer. His voice was in tip top shape and less shrill than his earlier days which is an definite improvement. With his huge trenchcoat, bald head and goggles Dolby looked startlingly like Hellboy! He chatted casually between songs, invited his daughter to play on one track, and proved just what a remarkable songwriter he is. I, and I'm sure many others, will definitely be back for more if he plays in the UK again.
Before jerky upstarts Mystery Jets took to the stage, there was a impromptu backstage clip featuring two of them harmonising over a cheap Casio keyboard. This sounded quite promising so we decided to delay getting something to eat. Sadly that brief clip was as good as it got. Once on stage, the mad, spastic, long instrumental intro was unexpected and wasn't half bad but it rapidly lost our interests thereafter. My wife, even though largely new to the delights of Thomas Dolby, asked how could this unknown act be given billing over Mr. D. A good question indeed.
Goldfrapp are now well-established regulars on the festival circuit. In fact, more so than headliners Depeche Mode. With their more substantial stage show of the recent past adding a great deal to the presentation, they did their thing well. Personally, my interest in Goldfrapp wanes with each passing live experience. I think the first album is brilliant, the second okay and the third merely passable. Today, there was nothing from that ethereal first outing. Not even Utopia put in an appearance as it had at recent gigs.
This was devoted largely to the latest glam rock stylings of the Supernature. It's impressive to reflect on just how far in the popularity race Goldfrapp have progressed since that first album. Now firmly well-established in the mainstream but still using their kinky presentation (just check out the series of scantily-clad dancers sporting everything from silver horses heads to wolf masks) to subvert the masses. This element we thoroughly approve of, but increasingly the music does less and less for me.
Stalwarts Depeche Mode took to the stage just as what was left of the summer sun was going down. As the sky changed colour over their performance, the band threw themselves into festival mode with energy and style. It's almost pointless these days referring to Depeche Mode as an 'electronic band' - even though they remain resolutely just that. The problem with doing so is that it is as misleading as saying The Beatles were a 'pop band'.
Bands change over time, their styles evolve and the remaining three members, whilst still at the heart of the band, are joined live by a tour drummer and keyboard player. With Martin Gore as much (if not more) on guitars these days than on synths, the result can quite legitimately be simply called rock. It's not (and frankly never will be) Status Quo rock, but its rock nonetheless. There are guitar and drums solos that although impressive (certainly in the case of the latter) will, in the context of the once doe-eyed, suited and tie-wearing synthpop Basildon boys of old, always be inserted more for the sheer fun of it than for macho posturing.
Most of the big hits were here, and a few lesser ones like Gore's vocal and piano only rendition of Shake The Disease. Highlight for me though was undoubtedly a superb performance of their first song committed to vinyl, Photographic. It wasn't the single version either, but the way superior original release on the famous Some Bizarre compilation album. Utilising original sound samples, this was not only faithful to its 1980 origins, but just as thrilling today as it was then.
The critic in me is apt to point out that Dave's voice sounded slightly weaker and certainly harsher that when they last appeared in London at Wembley in April earlier on in the tour. He's still too lazy on some of the choruses, and the visuals tonight weren't a patch on the Wembley show with the three backing screens static here rather than moving, and the live visual mixing seemed to lack the presence of Anton Corbijn this time around. The floating 'spaceship' projecting lyrics was absent too.
But these are minor points in the epic scheme of things that is Depeche Mode live these days. If they can remain on top of their personal demons and occasional rivalries there's no reason they should be doing this for fun in another 20 years time. And it's probably a safe bet to say you'll see me there.