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Berlin gig review: Depeche Mode bid farewell to something

BACKGROUND to this Berlin review:

David McElroy of the Almost Predictable Almost blog came up with a wonderful/crazy idea last year: to collect a review of every show on the Global Spirit Tour.

With a mixture of hard work, the generosity of fans, and good fortune in places, he’s managed to complete the 135-post project.

His enthusiasm is infectious – and he’s clearly very persuasive, given that over 100 people have written a review for him! – and I wanted to get involved, having (finally) met him at the Barrowlands show in early-2017.

At the same time as the Global Spirit Tour started, we collaborated on the Ultimate Depeche Mode Set List project for the London Stadium show. He’s one of the fanbase’s good guys – something demonstrated by how many fans have taken to wearing their Almost Predictable Almost t-shirts when attending gigs, perhaps as a calling card to other fans to come and say hello (it works, I can assure you – with a fan helping me out at a subway station after the New York show in June, when my ticket wouldn’t work!).

I’d written reviews of the Amsterdam and Paris shows for the project, during the first leg of the tour (he had kindly said that I could republish versions of them here afterwards), so was rather touched when he invited me to write some words for the penultimate gig in Berlin.

Whatever happens next for Depeche Mode, Berlin’s shows seemed to mark the end of something: touring on such a large and long scale; the “four-year cycle”; or perhaps the entire thing.

Anyone who was at the shows will agree that there was an element of change in the air.

So, below, is part 134 of the Global Spirit Tour project, first published on Almost Predictable Almost on the morning after the final show in Berlin.

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depeche mode berlin crowd

David’s introduction:

“Throughout this project I’ve not asked anyone to review a specific gig as I didn’t want to put pressure on people or ruin the show for them by making them feel they had to take notes etc.

“I made an exception to that rule however for this show as I really wanted Kevin May to review it. Not only are his reviews always excellent (this is his third for this blog) but, as Kevin wrote the second review of this thing for the Amsterdam show, him covering this show would given the whole project a nice shape.

“I asked and much to my delight Kevin said yes. Here’s his review then and I know you’ll love it. Thank you very much Kevin for the review, the pictures and for saying yes.”

*****

This review, perhaps rather cheekily, is written with the benefit of having a few days to both absorb the gig and knowing what took place at the final show in Berlin two days later (thanks, David, for the breathing space).

It makes sense, in a way, to have waited – so much emphasis has been placed on these last two dates as some kind of overall event on the tour, so neither can be taken in isolation.

This, therefore, is a review of the first show in Berlin, with a nod towards the Wednesday night extravaganza, written by David.

*****

Observers of the Global Spirit Tour specifically and Depeche Mode’s career generally will know that the closing months, weeks and days of a tour is a combination of excitement and concerns.

Excitement because it’s the last time that thousands of fans will get to see the band and, equally, concerns because it’s the last time that thousands of fans will get to these the band. See what I did there…

The four-year period of mourning that comes with such an occurrence is only heightened with each album and tour, as the band get older and creep up, ever-closer, to their sixties.

This time it’s more acute: the length of the tour, the celebratory nature of many of the shows, even the recent change in Dave Gahan’s farewell at the end of each gig – elements that have conspired to give many fans the idea that this is finally it. Or at least there is going to be a change to the four-year cycle.

It’s with all that conjecture in mind that I head to Berlin, unable to see both shows due to work and family commitments but with a sense of relief that I have a ticket for the first night.

Interestingly, despite the downbeat speculation littering the forums and fan pages over the last few months, there is no sense of foreboding in the air in Berlin.

On the contrary, in fact – perhaps a sign that the introduction and widespread use of social media has often only served to amplify the noise that surrounds a band of Depeche Mode’s size.

There are, in other words, thousands of fans who simply love going to see their band and have little time for the speculation.

Such a lack of doom and gloom is very welcome, feeling slightly worried before flying out that fans may treat the two nights as some kind of sad goodbye, rather than a party to commemorate a 38-year career.

Indeed, there is a particular feeling in the air throughout the time that I am in Berlin.

The day before the show, Sunday, for example, after wandering through the beautiful Berlin Tiergarten and listening to the extraordinary and massive Carillon tower (it has 68 bells, each connected to a keyboard some 42 metres feet high), a man and his partner stand beside me, decked in Depeche t-shirts.

I hear the man say: “I reckon Martin would love a go on that!” – they both chuckle to one another, see me smile, too, and then nod knowingly and say: “Enjoy the gigs!”.

Other moments include seeing a family, with fairly young children, all clad in black, climbing out of a van with Depeche flags and other paraphernalia on it. They’re all laughing and jostling around, messing about, on the morning of the gig, clearly excited about what lay ahead.

The vibe is everywhere – let’s have a (black) celebration, not a funeral.

The word on the Berlin streets is that “free seating” ticket holders (i.e. general entry) have a good chance of getting into the first block behind the standing area if they 1) arrive early, as there are only a limited number allowed in, and 2) head for a specific entrance gate.

With warm wine and beer (it’s a sweltering mid-afternoon) in bags, we head to the venue and find ourselves in a queue with several hundred other fans. We’re in the heart of the so-called Black Swarm.

depeche-mode-berlin-2

Strangely enough, this brief period of waiting is when the mood turns slightly low-key – the chants that were springing up as happy fans arrived from the various u-bahn and s-bahn stations have now stopped.

It’s not a stony silence – just a contemplative and more hushed tone in the conversations between friends and loved ones.

Once the gates open, the high spirits and high jinks return. The chanting resumes, the venue fills extremely quickly and early (it’s still only 5.30pm), the party atmosphere returns.

I have probably not experienced the energy from a crowd as those filling the steep sides of the Waldbuhne since the Royal Albert Hall in 2010 or the Crystal Palace gig of 1993.

It’s an extraordinary, perhaps slightly unworldly, feeling to be a part of it – something that the naysayers will snort at but deep down will know that there are very few moments when a collection of people can create such an uplifting environment.

And this is two hours before show time.

DAF, the support act, do a solid job in the Berlin early-evening dusk but I would suspect many members of the audience would be hard pressed to see the German band’s presence as no more than mildly tasty hors-d’oeuvres ahead of the main course.

It’s a shame, but probably to be expected.

There are a few factors about the night that will ensure anyone who attended the gig (or Wednesday’s climax) will remember it for a long time.

But it’s not the set-list. All but two of the songs – Strangelove and A Question Of Time – were played at the first show that I saw, in Amsterdam, in May 2017.

It’s not particularly the interactions onstage (they still outwardly appear to be enjoying themselves and one another a lot, 15 months in), or the always strong connection between the band – in particular, Dave – and the crowd.

Nor is it the near-perfect delivery of the material (apart from Dave’s slip-up on the opener, Going Backwards), in part probably knowing that Anton Corbijn and crew are in town to shoot the final two gigs.

Instead, consider elements such as the Waldbuhne location – it’s extraordinary and should be a template for outdoor venues across Europe, rather than often lifeless stadiums and arenas that change their brand name every few years.

Also, consider the energy of the crowd – creating enough goodwill and, dare I say it, love and adoration for their band, to ensure the intensity only increases as each song comes and goes.

This isn’t the festival crowds of the previous month or so – this is a crowd that cheers the start of each song with the same gusto as the previous one, rather than waiting for recognisable tracks. It must be a relief, somewhat, to be back in front of a “home crowd”.

Finally, consider that the party atmosphere that has been building for days and in the hours ahead of the show’s start has continued.

It’s almost as if the crowd suspects that this may be their last chance to experience the thrill of a Depeche Mode show, so they demand the highest standards of themselves in terms for providing an atmosphere that will then be felt by the band.

Some (myself included) have lamented the inclusion of I Feel You since, well, 1993 – yet tonight, for some reason, it doesn’t annoy me so much, if at all.

We forgive the boys on this one occasion.

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The crowd welcomes back the wonderfully seedy Corrupt, also the best live version of Wrong that the band have ever created.

Cover Me has become one of the strongest moments in a set for any new song in the last 20 years, and even the criminally bare version of Strangelove seems to work.

Still, one aspect of the Depeche Mode live experience that often gets overlooked is how sometimes the predictability works in a show’s favour.

For example, at end of Home, the entire crowd know when to sing unaccompanied (unlike in New York City a few weeks back) but they also know that this is the moment that it’s likely that Dave will lead a rendition of Happy Birthday in the direction of the 57-year-old, Martin Gore. It starts in a section of the crowd in front of me before Dave even comes on-stage. These fans know what to do.

It’s the familiarity with knowing that certain moves, lyrics, crowd chants, expressions, etc, are what make people feel good about themselves, which is therefore at the heart of the Depeche Mode experience.

There is a collective jump in the crowd when the first thumping bars of World In My Eyes strikeout, followed later in the song by the finger silhouettes of spectacles.

The audience knows the exact moment when to carry on the final refrains of Everything Counts, or start the wheat field arm-waving display during Never Let Me Down Again (it is particularly jaw-dropping in a bowl-like venue like the Waldbuhne).

These aren’t guilty pleasures, nor are they things to be scoffed at – there’s something to be said for thousands of people simply enjoying themselves, letting go and absorbing the energy that an experience can create.

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As Personal Jesus comes to a close, and the now continually cryptic “we’ll see you some other time” rings out, there is no obvious sadness still that this could be one of the band’s last ever shows.

There is a group of four people, two rows in front of me, hugging and crying – not through sorrow but I can hear them saying (they are British) what an amazing time they’ve had.

The crowd gradually climbs to the top of the Waldbuhne, and many people look back down towards the bottom of the bowl, perhaps their own moment of reflection that it may be the last glimpse of a Depeche Mode stage.

But then, as the audience drifts away to the various public transport areas, pockets of chants are heard everywhere – Home, Enjoy The Silence and, perhaps most beautifully, a gentle but long recital of the closing backing vocal of Waiting For The Night.

Sometimes, words are very unnecessary…

This is what Depeche Mode do/did to people. I guess we’ll find out how to end that sentence some other time.

Footnote:

It was somewhat (perhaps unintentionally) poetic that David asked me to review the penultimate show of the tour in Berlin, with the blogmeister himself taking on the final gig – he started the ball rolling on this mammoth project at the opener in Stockholm, and then I penned the review of the second show in Amsterdam. Our respective reviews have book-ended the entire project!

As someone who has edited newspapers, magazines and now online publications, I know about the tireless work that goes on behind the scenes to produce a body of work that readers will find valuable and enjoy reading.

It goes without saying that without his unbounded enthusiasm for the project and passion for Depeche Mode, this series of reviews of EVERY SINGLE SHOW on the tour (just let that sink in for a moment) would have never happened.

He’s edited every piece, been unfailingly polite with everyone who has contributed, and I’m sure has had a few hair-raising, frustrating and exhausting moments along the way. That’s what happens when you take on a project of this size.

I am thrilled and honoured to have been involved with it.

As this was the last review written by one of his contributors, I would like to – if my comrades will allow it – thank David on behalf of us all, for organising, hosting and connecting us, and for being an all-around top fella.

Cheers. Kev and the Gang