There aren’t a lot of bands that can fill an arena then make it seem like you wouldn’t want to see them in anything smaller. Depeche Mode is one of those. The band has been on tour for more than a year, and last week returned to New York for the second time, having played two shows at Madison Square Garden in September. This fact did nothing to deter the faithful, and despite stringent security creating long lines to get in as people contemplated throwing away the $14-a-pack cigarettes and vaping devices that the guards weren’t letting be brought in, the Barclays Center began filling quickly while opener EMA was still on. EMA is probably less suited for such a big venue, as her post-modern pop isn’t exactly anthemic. Nevertheless, she seemed to enjoy herself as she ran through a short set of songs that amply displayed her smarts and chops.
Depeche Mode, which live is core members Martin Gore, David Gahan, and Andy Fletcher augmented by keyboardist Peter Gordeno and drummer Christian Eigner, is ostensibly on tour to promote Spirit, the album they released last year, and began the show as the record begins, with “Going Backwards.” That’s been the case on all three shows I’ve seen on this tour, and it works perfectly for Gahan’s entrance via a catwalk built into the LED backdrop. From there, the band would go on to touch on nearly every period in its long existence, continuing with “It’s No Good” from 1997’s Ultra. Gahan is a showman in every aspect, quickly building up a sheen of sweat (which he dramatically wiped from his brow several times) as he pranced around the stage in red sequined boots.
The setlist for this tour has morphed as it has progressed, with slight changes being made on every leg. This one felt more personal than the MSG show, with new additions like “Precious” and “The Things You Said” being particular resonant. Perhaps the highlight of the set, the latter was sung by Gore, who’s been rotating the songs he performs throughout the tour. Tonight, he also sung “Home,” which built from a minimal lament to a soaring cresting of emotion.
Part of Depeche Mode’s ability to engage every person in the capacity crowd is owed to the big screen behind them, which mostly projected the musicians’ visages as they performed onstage. But it was also distracting at times, specifically when it shifted to showing a video with its own story line. At a distance, it’s hard not to watch what is put before you instead of focusing on the musicians performing, and that’s problematic when you have a frontman as charismatic as Gahan.
Even though Spirit was being promoted, it was the older material that nevertheless stood out. “Stripped” was particularly riveting, and following it with “Enjoy the Silence” and “Never Let Me Down Again” was a good way to end the set proper. When DM returned for an encore, Gore once again took the lead as the band threw us a curve ball with a version of “I Want You Now” that was devoid of the vocal effects of the original, but was perhaps more remarkable in its stripped down form.
After “Walking in My Shoes,” which was probably the biggest offender of the aforementioned video distraction, the show wrapped up on several high notes. “A Question of Time” built to a fever pitch that left nearly everyone in a daze. The final song wasn’t much a surprise: “Personal Jesus.” It’s ironic that a band generally known as being electronic artists created such an iconic guitar riff. Live, that riff, as played on Gore’s Gretsch White Falcon, is larger than life, and the song was a stirring, if predictable, moment. Depeche Mode long ago revealed themselves to be more than mere neuromancers, and this show proved how they’ve crafted an enduring songbook that resonates with both plangency and ecstasy.