ACL 2013 Review: Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode bring big visuals, leather vests and surprising levity to Zilker

Theatrics, dancing, synths and a wink at the crowd from Depeche Mode

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Depeche Mode's dramatic ACL 2013 performance silenced the notorously chatty Zilker Park crowd. ACL Fest website

When ACL Fest announced that Depeche Mode and The Cure would headline two nights of the 2013 edition, the jokes flew quickly. Eyeliner Fest, Goth Fest, 120 Minutes Fest: while likely simply an availability coincidence, the fact that two of the pioneering, "sensitive" alternative bands of the 80s were featured gave the bill a distinct appeal to some more than others. While The Cure's approach remains to be seen, Depeche Mode's set on Friday showed a rather distinct shift away from the self-seriousness of the group's "Depressed Mode" commercial peak.

The show's production was a real spectacle; the band still plays stadiums in Europe, and the tour's triangular video screens and mix of high- and low-tech visual effects were designed to project and entertain — a component other ACL headliners have sometimes missed.

Frontman Dave Gahan twirled and humped mic stands, grabbed his crotch and generally prowled the stage like a guy who knows how to sell a tune by any means necessary. 

The group entered to a massive audience welcome, then wisely knocked out both "new" numbers from this year's Delta Machine first. By the time the audience calmed down from the band's entrance, the show had settled into a festival-friendly mix of classic hits and later-period favorites. In the 26 (!) years since the release of Music for the Masses, frontman Dave Gahan hasn't lost his fondness for leather vests — or for discarding them mid-song to provoke an audience reaction.

After a bout with heroin in the 90s nearly killed him, Gahan has been sober for more than 15 years, and you can see it in his performance. No longer playing the tortured artist, Gahan seemed to revel in playing to the crowd — sometimes to the point of pandering. He twirled and humped mic stands, grabbed his crotch and generally prowled the stage like a guy who knows how to sell a tune by any means necessary.

By contrast, Gahan's bandmate Andy Fletcher hardly moved during the performance. Gore's role in the trio (apart from his lead songwriting duty) is to play the more sensitive foil to Gahan's sketchy and dangerous rocker, which he does to perfection. His solo turns on Ultra's "Home" and classic DM hit "Shake the Disease" stopped the audience in its tracks. We'd never seen Zilker that devoid of idle chatter.

We suspect the cute yet melancholy parade of dogs projected behind "Precious" has a Tumblr page by now. 

Depeche Mode's visual staging deserves special mention. Some of the production design added an extra layer to the performance — most notably on the simple visual static accompanying "Black Celebration" and on a cute yet melancholy parade of dogs projected behind "Precious," which we suspect probably has a Tumblr page by now. Other effects were more cheeky: some soft-focus video late in the set looked more Gary Numan video than 2013 festival show, and a still photo of the band before the encore imposed Terry Gillam-style silly hats and visuals over their photos. As for the band, it showed both a steady hand with the material and a much stronger rock orientation than older fans might expect. Drummer Christian Eigner brought particular power to certain songs; the band pushed the drums high in the mix, which helped involve the crowd and keep it dancing all evening.

While the setlist may have been predictable, the audience's love of Depeche Mode had it smiling from the band's first steps onstage. You always knew what was coming, but the group's late-career smiles rather than sighs made for a most enjoyable headline set.