Depeche Mode: Wembley Arena, London

Essex boys mix a bit of Basildon with their Beverly Hills
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The Independent Culture

Basildon, the Essex Town where Depeche Mode began 20 years ago, doesn't seem to exist for them these days. They've physically and musically toughened, adding electric guitars and living lives of LA excess.

Songwriter Martin Gore has left behind lyrics of smalltown romance and escape, replacing them with sado-masochistic confessionals and addiction chronicles, while scrawny singer Dave Gahan has muscled up. However, it's still impossible to look at Gahan without imagining him as a sulky teenager at an Essex bus stop. One look at the white, suburban working class crowd who fill Wembley for them tonight, and their roots seem within touching distance. You can take the boys out of Basildon but Basildon has come to them.

For the first seconds, as the band picked out electro-ambient notes in silhouetted, early-Eighties anonymity, the stadium rock years seem musically erased. But then, in a flash of light and slash of deep drum beats, Gahan slinks on stage with camp machismo, and a night-long battle between parodic pomp and imaginative grace begins.

Depeche Mode are helped by having a fresh new album, Exciter, to draw on; Gahan sings with unusual restraint on it, which he manages, too, when he and Gore share the spotlight tonight for the string-washed "When the Body Speaks''. But it's Gore who seems most comfortable with Exciter's spiritual calm, taking lead vocals for three of its songs with his quavering, exposed voice, embodying its feminised mood.

Gahan then strips off his shirt, and struts about with comical, sweaty abandon, shouting "Hello London!'' as if he's never been here before. Hard to resist in his happiness, he leads us and won't rest till we are singing the new single "Freelove''.

There are touches that unite the two men's approaches, and the two Depeche Modes; the sensitive Essex boys they began as and are becoming again, and the rock stars they play at. Disjunctive video images and acoustic flourishes undercut the strutting, to keep the stadium gods Basildon-sized.

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