For a band whose reputation rests on the darker side of human nature, the biggest surprise at Depeche Mode’s packed show at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Tuesday night was just how happy the band was on stage.
Smiles abounded. High-fives were given. There was laughter between musicians. And Dave Gahan loves to dance.
But, hey, the band members should be happy. Depeche Mode has lasted longer than most of its contemporaries without really altering its sound, never leaving that operatic, industrial electronica that fans know since the early ’80s.
In lead singer Mr. Gahan’s case, he seems happy to be alive. There’s been the heroin addiction. Then there was the cancer, caught just in time. It looks like the band is just stoked to be performing, in the knowledge that there’s no knowing what the future may hold.
So they came to the Bowl bearing gifts: a brand-new album, “Delta Machine,” which they returned to often and which held up well against the hits; and a huge video backdrop that made up for their stop here in 2009, when the thing went kablooey and the band performed in front of nothing but white light.
The band was confident and at ease, neither too loose nor slick. Santa Barbara resident Martin Gore opted for a series of guitars through most of the night, leaving the synth duties to longtime touring member Peter Gordeno, and synth beds and effects to third member Andy Fletcher, who spent a lot of time raising and lowering his hands to the audience. (Did he want us to get up? Get down? Was he stretching?) Their drummer Christian Eigner thundered his way through most songs, giving electronic beats a breathing kick.
The band opened with the first song on their new album, “Welcome to My World,” which seems designed for a show opening like this. It’s broody, menacing, and sets the stage for the show to follow. Next came “Angel,” the second song on the album, but here was a difference. On the album, “Angel” felt out of place, like Mr. Gahan trying on some Matt Johnson vocal tricks. Live, it had morphed into a good late-period Depeche song, meaning everybody had rounded off the rough edges.
“Walking in My Shoes” followed from that, a 1993 hit, and then “Precious” from 2005, which filled the giant screen with portraits of dogs. It was a silly, “aww”-inspiring counterpoint to the song, which is about children going through a divorce. (Anyone with a dog will tell you they’re like children too, so it evens out.)
Then the real hits began, backing up to “Black Celebration” from 1986. Not surprisingly, the crowd — a nice age range, by the way — responded in kind, even though the song, an early-career-defining song in both sound and lyric, is not the toe-tappingest in the book. Four large light banks descended from the roof like flashing UFOs, adding to an already impressive live show. “Policy of Truth” kicked things up, then “You Should Be Higher,” with its video footage of fire spinners covered in sparks. The song is new, but the vibe is vintage.
Mr. Gahan couldn’t stop moving through the show, using his lankiness and fit shape to good effect. He’s rubbery in limb, a bit like Jagger in his outré prime. He shook his booty towards the audience, who loved it. Off went the jacket at one point, leaving just a vest. And near the end of the show, he was shirtless. He’s sexy and he knows it. Additionally, there was no twerking, so Gahan 1 Miley Cyrus 0.
Mr. Gore writes most of the tunes, and usually gets to sing one song per album. In concert he gets his own solo moments too. His voice isn’t too different than Mr. Gahan’s, but he has a higher range. His ballads show a camp sentimentality, and one can imagine them as the “dark night of the soul” moment in an off-Broadway musical. “Oh my God it is raining/And I’m not complaining” he sings in “But Not Tonight” a B-side from 1986. It’s no Cole Porter, but Mr. Gore means everything he says. “The Child Inside” is similar, but from the new album.
For a much better ballad, the new single “Heaven” — backed by a new video that bears the mark of Anton Corbijn (or a student of his), of the band traipsing through a forest, building black triangles out of wood — is one of their best in years, and the band did its grandeur justice. And that was the take-away from the concert — the band’s music is already pretty theatrical, and live they just turn that up to eleven.
As the end neared, it was hit time: “A Question of Time,” turned into something heavy and metal, “Enjoy the Silence” which almost turned into a Daft Punk funky workout near the end, and “Personal Jesus” which started out as slow as a Gregorian chant then jumped into gear.
The encore brought Mr. Gore back for two more songs, one being his best ballad, “Shake the Disease,” and then the band’s ode to addiction, “Never Let Me Down Again,” a traditional show closer, ending with video of the Bowl crowd waving back at themselves as the band took a proper bow. They’ve survived what might have killed many other bands and lived to tell the tale.