ROCK / A taste of rock-beast behaviour a la Mode

Ben Thompson
Saturday 07 August 1993 23:02
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THE NATIONAL Sports Centre in Crystal Palace is an outdoor music venue that is under-used. Not just because the crowd gets to touch (well, through a plastic sheet) the hallowed gravel where Donna Hartley and David Coleman have trod; it's also the approach routes. You sweep up and down grassy slopes and modernist walkways and the stadium squats in the valley beneath like a huge beetle preparing to scuttle off. Depeche Mode, the new-town dream made flesh, can only flourish here.

The purity of the Basildon quartet's aesthetic is not quite what it was. Fortunately, the sombre clarity of their sound is not compromised by the intervention of guitars, real drums, and even a string section. Only Dave Gahan's formula rock-beast behaviour detracts from the tinny grandeur. Depeche Mode have rocked up the tone a lot, but Gahan's mid-Atlantic yowl does not convince, and there is something incongruous about a man shouting 'Yeah] All right] Let's see those muthafuggin' hands]' while standing in front of a pile of synthesisers.

The crowd, uniformly attired in newly purchased T-shirts, do not think so, and clap and sing along with plenty of commitment. The celebratory atmosphere might seem to be out of tune with the miserabilist tendencies of latter- day Mode, but there is certainly pleasure to be had from the skill with which this show has been designed. The tools of the group's trade perch starkly atop square video walls while the nattily self- conscious video imagery of Anton Corbijn flickers beneath. Their old simpler virtues remain even as newer songs reach out for big themes with varying success. The debaucher's apologia of 'Walking in my Shoes' might be unintentionally comic - 'the Lord himself would blush]' - but there's no denying it has a nice tune.

They don't do quite enough hits - a gothed-up 'New Life' would have been fun - but under the moonlight a new suppleness and strength emerges in much of the more recent material. Depeche Mode's attempts to grow up in public have made them an easy target for ridicule, but at least (unlike, say, the Cure) they have made the effort. Sometimes they try too hard. There is an ugly flash of misogyny in 'Stripped', but for a band whose main songwriting talent left more than a decade ago, they are not doing badly.

The Cambridge Folk Festival is far from the Aran-jumpered, straggle-bearded nightmare that prejudice anticipates. The event bears all the signs of successful local-government enterprise. The entrance is besieged by callow youths trying to blag their way in by claiming to have lost unlosable identity bracelets. Inside, much mead has been quaffed, and the only difference in atmosphere from any normal music festival is that here when drunken revellers sing along, they try to harmonise.

For all the sureness with which her stock is rising, it's hard not to worry for Arkansas-born country diva Iris Dement as she takes the marquee stage. She has a nervous look, accentuated by backwoods costume - a flowery print dress and those white tights that are calculated to give a grown woman schoolgirl awkwardness. Dement has no backing band, just a guitar which she plays with fluid delicacy. When she opens her mouth to sing, this amazing raw yodel comes out. Her set opens with 'Let the Mystery be', first song on the excellent album Infamous Angel (Warner). It's a jaunty tune about religious certainty (Iris, the last of 14 children, was raised in an atmosphere of such God-fearing hardship as to make Dolly Parton jealous), with a twist. 'I've heard that I'm on the road to purgatory, and I don't like the sound of that.'

She does enough striking new songs to suggest that her debut will be no flash in the pan. There's a great hard-times number called 'Easy's Getting Harder Every Day', and she can even make a Johnny Cash song ('I Still Miss Someone') her own. Sometimes she is almost too folksy - 'I like to hear children crying while I play,' she assures the parents of a squalling infant, 'it reminds me of singing in church.' But her best lyrics, as on the new single 'Our Town', show the ability to put herself in other people's places that is the mark of a great songwriter.

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