As the front man for Depeche Mode, Dave Gahan was always the fiery counterpart to his colleagues icy remoteness. Stepping out alone in front of a fiercely partisan audience, the former juvenile delinquent from Basildon, Essex, lost no time in asserting himself as a rock shaman of the old school.
Stripped to the waist, sweat-drenched, hip-swivelling and heavily tattooed, he was never afraid to act the fool even as he struck Messianic rock god poses. With songs cherry-picked from the Depeche songbook and his recent solo debut, Paper Monsters, it was a performance that presented one man's personal odyssey through darkness and degeneracy into the light. Along the way, it sparked off a communal catharsis that comes all too rarely to the capital's rock'n'roll stages.
Having suffered a heart attack, heroin addiction, and a reported suicide attempt, Gahan has evidently paid a heavy price for multi-million-selling rock stardom. Since his recovery began he has been increasingly stifled in Depeche Mode, feeling himself little more than a mouthpiece for Martin Gore's lyrics. The sense of freedom and determination to prove himself as a solo artist was obvious from the moment he took the stage. The four-piece band - comprised of numerous survivors of rock'n'roll excess - cracked the whip on the frazzled electro blues of "Dirty Sticky Floors", a key song on Paper Monsters, its mix of waggish deprecation and heart-wrenching confessional setting the tone for the evening.
For a while, particularly during the relatively low-key love song declarations of "Stay" and "Bitter Apple", inspired by his New Yorker wife Jennifer, a muddy sound mix threatened to mire the show in no man's land. But once the gremlins had been banished and Gahan's stadium-bred crowd-pleasing antics took hold, the unabashed mix of fun and passion, blood, sweat and tears would have broken down the resistance of even the most entrenched Mode-phobe.
The show was loaded with fan-pleasing favourites from the Depeche Mode songbook and if the mission was to deliver a wake-up call to his long-term associates it might have succeeded. With the re-energised Gahan leading them on, his group captured the spiritual anxiety of "Personal Jesus" and the torments of "Walk in My Shoes" in a way that has eluded Depeche for some years.
Gahan blew warped dustbowl harmonica and regularly unleashed the sort of primal scream therapy that would have a pantomime fraudster like Robbie Williams and a host of accompanying nu-metal whippersnappers quaking in their trainers. At one point he dipped into a Mick Jagger impersonation, camping it up with a few lines from the Stones' "Miss You", but the distance between self-parody and emotional investment was always respectfully maintained.
What really lifted the performance, however, was the crowd's involvement. On "Enjoy the Silence", dedicated to Gahan's mother, who was sitting in the balcony, he could rely on them to take the choruses and the verses. By the close, the entire venue was a mass of swaying arms and a banner emblazoned with the legend "We love Dave, He's the Daddy," was graciously accepted from the throng and unfurled.
"And don't forget it," Gahan twinkled as he made his way back to the dressing room. The point was well made: Gahan has served notice of his future intentions. When Depeche reunite, the balance of power will not be the same.
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