I've probably got all the ticket stubs, (in more recent years) wrist bands and (a handful of fortunate times) VIP passes from all my Depeche Mode gigs since that first one at Hammersmith Odeon in 1984, so could probably tot up the number of DM gigs I've been to during those 26 years. I don't have actual figure but it will undoubtedly be a large one and by some way the band I've seen the most during my gig going career. There have been some great and memorable gigs amongst those down the years and performance wise tonight's show at the O2 Arena was up there in the all-time list. The evening began in proper, old school fashion with former Mute label mates and previous tour support act Nitzer Ebb opening for their Basildon neighbours for the first time in years. Thankfully, firmly shoving aside pathetic memories of a range of staggeringly mediocre support acts we've had to endure way too often in the intervening years.
After what I described as the "one dimensional, plonky clunkiness" of seeing Nitzer Ebb in Berlin last summer, any expectations were kept firmly in check tonight. That June night was a major disappointment and I'd pretty much all but written off NE as a worthwhile venture. What rapidly became clear this evening was that one night in Berlin was not a sufficient sample to accurately judge these gents and that must have been a seriously off night, because what I and ten of thousands of others witnessed here was just fantastic. The best Nitzer Ebb gig I've ever been to, and this coming from a firm stadium-hater. Being at the very front of the entire venue (my wife and I were standing in the front row, up against the barrier - just a few feet from the stage) undoubtedly helped with the atmosphere and having a perfect view was a definite bonus (also made getting the best ever set of NE+DM gig photos a breeze).
However, all the credit goes entirely to Douglas McCarthy, Bon Harris and new live drummer Jason Payne. There's clearly a renewed vigour, vitality, energy and hunger to deliver the best performance possible and came across in waves of brilliance. Whether it was tapping into their back catalogue for thrilling past glories or drawing choice cuts from their tidy come-back album "Industrial Complex" the energy levels never flagged, the impact was mighty, and McCarthy in particular was at the top of his game. As a working unit all three seem really up for it ('it' being the whole draining/exhilarating dichotomy of being on a global tour) and crucially also appear to be loving every minute on stage. That kind of enthusiasm, commitment and desire comes across in any live setting - whether it's the intimate former railway building of Berlin's Postbahnhof or the shiny new corporate bowl inside London's landmark Millenium Dome. As already stated, the best Nitzer Ebb gig I've ever been to and a daunting act even for the likes of Depeche Mode to follow on a night like this.
Tonight was a Saturday. On the Wednesday before, Depeche Mode played, what for them is a rare (perhaps unique?) charity gig at the iconic Royal Albert Hall in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust. (Fans unlikely to forget that singer Dave Gahan underwent emergency surgery last year after he was unexpectedly diagnosed with a cancerous bladder tumour. This led to a number of gigs being cancelled last May and being rescheduled - this evening was one of those.) We weren't fortunate to get tickets for that one, which was a shame because erstwhile member and ever since solo artist Alan Wilder made an historic appearance on stage with the band for the first time in 15 years, as a very special guest, playing the piano on "Somebody" whilst writer Martin Gore crooned up front. It was just like the good old days! Legions of DM fans would dearly love for Wilder to rejoin the band and get them back up to their former, four-piece glory days.
Up until that Wednesday evening that had seemed like pure fan fantasy. A wish never to come true. Of course, immediately after the one-song appearance, the internet was buzzing with fans blogging frantically about a possible permanent return by Wilder. The many clips of his brief return popping up on You Tube giving those unable to attend to share in the the faint hope and excitement. According to Wilder's blog on his Recoil Myspace page, it was lead singer Gahan (the other member of his previous band he was closest too) who suggested asking Wilder to join them on stage and Dave telephoned Alan just a few days before to ask him to do it. Wilder's acceptance was frankly more surprising than Gahan extending the invitation in the first place, as hitherto Wilder had made it clear that he had absolutely no intention of rejoining the band.
This gig was the first after that landmark Wilder appearance and I cannot help but think there was something of the renewed thrill of their old band mate being on stage once more that was - consciously or subconsciously - still coursing through Gahan's veins. Whatever the explanation, whilst this show wasn't quite the best I'd ever seen in its entirety, it was the most thrilling Dave Gahan performance I've ever witnessed. There was a tangible buzz and discussion in the audience as to whether or not Alan would also appear on stage this evening. Perhaps some of that invisible energy reached Gahan on stage. Who knows? Probably only Gahan himself. What did matter for everyone in attendance though was although Wilder didn't reprise his appearance on stage the show they did get was every bit as good as one could ever have hoped for so far into Depeche Mode's career. (I did spot Wilder at the aftershow party though - so he was in attendance at least - further fuelling the rumour mill about a possible return to full-time employment with the band.)
The set was a familiar enough blend of the old and the new, though yet further tweaks to great tracks, such as the even more funky than usual bassline on "Behind The Wheel", were evidence that the spark of incessant creativity remains among them, to the benefit of the songs and those assembled to listen. The handful of tracks from their most recent album, last year's "Sounds of the Universe", were good if not altogether great, but for every good track there ITwereIT several great ones. Even Gahan choosing not to sing the memorable chorus on "Stripped" could detract from what is still one of their greatest ever live songs. In many ways then, this evening was more about the performance than set itself; and it was a performance all on stage can be proud to have been a part of. Martin Gore sweated his way through the night in impressive swaggering manner, whilst at the other end of the scale, and despite being located towards the back of the stage, Fletch's sneaky snack nibbling mid-set didn't go unspotted!
An example of Gahan's good spirits was when, towards the end of the evening, all the other band members began walking off stage in preparation for the inevitable encore, when Gahan began speaking (through his mike) simultaneously to them and to the audience. His clearly unscripted comments expressed surprise that the band weren't going to sing 'Happy Birthday' to keyboard player Peter Gordeno - whose birthday it apparently was today. The others, by this time right at the back of the stage, almost off it, were caught unexpectedly, and only after further playful, but persistent, coaxing turned back to join Gahan, and the audience, in an impromptu rendition to celebrate on behalf of Gordeno. After a couple of encores, all of them moved to the front of the stage, arms around one another, Gahan belly laughing at something, infectiously rippling through the rest of them. There was special karma on stage tonight and those of use fortunate enough to be there shared in that - much to our ecstatic delight.
Without question, gig of the year so far, and firmly up there in the all time best list.
With sincere and heartfelt thanks to my old friend Kerry. 9/10
Setlist: 01 In Chains, 02 Wrong, 03 Hole To Feed, 04 Walking In My Shoes, 05 It's No Good, 06 A Question Of Time, 07 Precious, 08 World In My Eyes, 09 Freelove (sung by Martin), 10 Home, 11 Miles Away / The Truth Is, 12 Policy Of Truth, 13 In Your Room, 14 I Feel You, 15 Enjoy The Silence, 16 Never Let Me Down Again, (Encore:) 17 A Question Of Lust, 18 Stripped, 19 Behind The Wheel, 20 Personal Jesus