When a band has a deep catalog of hits and a new record to promote, it can be anyone’s guess how they might craft their setlist while on tour. The most thoughtful artists tend to focus on the old favorites fans want to hear, meshing them with new tracks that evoke a similar vibe, rhythm or tempo, and maybe adding a vintage deep cut or two throughout. Depeche Mode flipped this formula a bit Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl, and for the most part, they pulled it off.
Selling out a record-breaking four consecutive nights at the Bowl and playing to a made this stop on their “Spirit” tour feel momentous. The political themes and production on their latest release, “Where’s the Revolution?,” have a profound and timely intensity — not to mention a catchiness — that takes on a new life onstage.
But the focus on new material means there’s less room for the old, much less than the band has doled out on past tours. It’s a conundrum most touring musicians of a certain age have to contend with and there’s rarely a perfect balance, but the absence of hits like “Just Can’t Get Enough,” “Master and Servant,” Shake the Disease,” “Behind the Wheel,” “Strangelove,” “Precious,” “Policy of Truth” and “People are People” (the latter of which would have fit in quite nicely with the political nature of their latest work) was achingly felt.
However, the group did play some classics, including three sung by main songwriter Martin Gore: “Question of Lust,” “Home” and “Somebody.” And while they focused on “Revolution,” the selections from fan favorites like “Violator” (“World in My Eyes,” “Enjoy the Silence,” “Personal Jesus”) and “Songs of Faith and Devotion” (“I Feel You” “Walking in My Shoes” and “In Your Room”) were dance-inducing sing-a-longs that perked up the hit-hungry crowd, many of whom paid hefty sums to relive the soundtrack from their awkward adolescences in Bowl box seats.
Visuals by photographer/filmmaker Anton Corbijn, whose stark photos defined the images of this band as well as U2 in the 1980s, added a pop-art backdrop that varied from colorful and curious (one featuring Warhol-esque, brightly lit animals during “Everything Counts”) to interpretive and powerful (a clip featuring an androgynous musician getting dressed and donning sky-high stilettos during “Walking in My Shoes”). Depeche also paid homage to David Bowie with a heartfelt cover of “Heroes.”
Even with the mixed-bag setlist, fans did seem happy. Frontman Dave Gahan seems to grow bolder on stage as he gets older, dancing, crooning and interacting with the crowd. Gore continues to move closer to center-stage, and providing instrumental depth with keyboard and guitar on heavier numbers.
Depeche Mode were recently nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and while “rock” may at first seem counter-intuitive in their synth-pop origins, the group’s longevity and visceral live performances are a testament to their status as both legends and rock stars.