"God, I've been all over Europe and I haven't seen such a dead audience. You've got bodies... fucking use them!" said Fad Gadget. Consolidating his return to the live arena in the biggest way possible (from the modest Elektrofest in April to supporting Depeche Mode on their European tour just a few months later), Frank Tovey's legendary alter ego is facing a typical London audience. There was no Lady Shave tonight, but Ricky's Hand was as subversive as ever, with the dangerous drill making a welcome appearance. Coitus Interruptus was a great 'dance' version that did get the crowd moving, and Collapsing New People was another fine entry.
Running, leaping, jumping and diving. The fact that this was a 20,000 capacity arena didn't stop Fad stage diving into the audience. It was clear that, despite his protestations, most of the audience did appreciate him and if the people around me were anything to go by then there were clearly a lot of fans too as they were singing along and cheering on their favourite tracks. Gadget walked off after some Fat Boy Slim "Superstar DJ" and Baha Men "Who let the dogs out?" improv thrown in for good measure. Not sure if it was just an ironic statement of sorts or if it was a critique of the audience who didn't go wild en masse for Mr Gadget. He shouldn't concern himself. DM fans are notoriously fickle and intollerent when it comes to support bands. He could have fared a lot worse and if he really wasn't appreciated then he would have know it. Electribe 101 were left in no doubt at the same venue during an earlier DM tour, when they were unceremoniously canned off the stage. These days they don't allow drinks to be taken into the standing area. Hmm, I wonder why?
As for Depeche Mode, having concentrated on relatively small bands over the last few years, the last time I was at a venue the size of Wembley Arena was during the last DM tour. I'm not a fan of big venue gigs in general - largely because they usually lack atmosphere and often reek of corporate sponsorship. To my surprise and delight, neither applied tonight. DM were not only on form they were better than their 'Singles' tour in 1998. Gone was the angst and tears on stage when David Gahan was singing the emotionally charged songs. In place of this distressing tone was one of pure fun. Gahan's movements on stage have been well chronicled, but I'd never seen him move quite like he did tonight. He and Martin Gore pogoing past each other would have been naff if it was so uncontrollably genuine. Yet, never was this joyus atmosphere at the expense of the songs.
Gahan is still a bit too lazy on the vocal front for my tastes, i.e. getting the audience to 'join in' on a classic chorus or two is tollerable if not something I ever 'enjoy', but Gahan goes overboard and the lack of band driven vocals on Enjoy the Silence was a disappointment. The Dead of Night - my least favourite track from their latest album Exciter is easily the least convincing track. It's obviously deliberate kitsch delivery doesn't turn it into the lighthearted piece I'm sure the band intended and, to be frank, I was glad that it was well out of the way. Freelove on the other hand, also from Exciter, recalls the classic Music for the Masses era and adds another strong anthem to their live repertoire. Choice singles and album cuts dominated the remainder. With the likes of Personal Jesus, Black Celebration, In Your Room and Never Let Me Down Again peppering the set, the shortcomings of the often too slight new material were thrown into relief. However, even I have to admit that Dream On, what I considered to be one of the Mode's weakest single releases ever, worked remarkably well live. I'm convinced that is at least partially due to it being a real 'grower' of a track; something Depeche Mode do so well you'd think that the Government would use their songs to insert subliminal messages that gradually wear you down after repeated exposure.
Gahan was already down to his bare chest by the fourth track, sweat making his body glisten just like a movie rock star. But the gesturing and posturing of the previous two tours was toned down, in that this time Gahan was 'dealing' with the situation a whole lot better. I quickly found myself being won over. Highly skeptical of the live potential of the new material, I didn't expect the Exciter tour to rock my socks, but it almost whipped them out from under me. This was really down to the honesty of those on stage. They were having such a good time that it was impossible not to get carried along by it all. Martin Gore gave Gahan a chance to rest back stage when he sung When the Body Speaks, Home and a brilliiant and rare rendition of It Doesn't Matter Too. Gore's voice as moving as ever - the more harmonious counterpart to Gahan's powerful lead voice and sometimes guttural crooning. Strolling around the stage with his guitars has given Gore the chance to shine as a performer. Long gone is the reluctant nervousness that used to trouble him. Now, it is he that stands high at the back of the stage, guitar slung low around his body, both arms raised in a victory 'V' - saluting the rock gods above.
Poor old Andy Fletcher, meanwhile, is left with far too little to do. Everyone has readily acknowledged that his strengths in the band lay in the business side of things and, during the band's most troubled periods, in keeping the whole enterprise together. He's never been known for his keyboard skills but the lack of parts for him to play is getting a bit out of hand. It wouldn't matter so much if he were a natural mover. His often awkward hand clapping, waving and pointing is a forgivable, even endearing character trait; but the shadow boxing, disco moves and exagerated 'dancing' was pure pantomime. On several ocassions I wondered if Mute was secretly filming a Andy Fletcher workout video without telling anyone. Ensuring their live sound remains largely live were an additional synth player - taking over the parts of the sadly departed Alan Wilder - and a very convincing drummer.
Although their golden years are apparently well behind them now, the Mode, despite what certain BBC radio stations would have you believe, remain relevent, even important. The newer material is fine, just not terrific. Provided they can turn in albums as good as Exciter every few years and continue to deliver live performances like tonight, then they need not concern themselves with the likes of Radio 1. As Dave Gahan so eloquently put it at one point: "Fuck Radio 1". Exactly, let's get on with some rockin'.