“It’s quiet,” says Dave Gahan with a wide smile. “I like it.”
You can see his point. Depeche Mode are a stadium band, selling out huge venues ten times larger than London’s Coliseum, but something about the intimacy of faithfully delivering the songs on ‘Imposter’ – his ‘story of songs’ with Rich Machin’s adaptable Soulsavers – and (mostly) not diving into the Depeche Mode back catalogue, makes complete sense in this theatre. This is a venue ordinarily designed for ballet and opera, where the entire audience needs to be able to experience a certain proximity to the performance. The covers on ‘Imposter’ were all chosen because they meant something personal to Gahan, thus requiring a venue that allowed us to study his open, cathartic response to the songs without the aid of screens and a cavernous auditorium.
This, to be clear, is not about performance – the energetic, insistent Gahan has rarely struggled with performing. This is about something much bigger. This is about Gahan finding himself, unshackled from what his audience has come to expect from him, in the process revealing more of himself than he ever has before.
When he delivers the rockier songs – Cat Power’s ‘Metal Heart’, Elmore James’s ‘I Held My Baby Last Night, PJ Harvey’s ‘The Desperate Kingdom Of Love’ – it’s like Gahan has become untethered, stalking the stage and making angular, contorted shapes as he responds to the wild intensity of the music, his body twisted in holy rapture. When he performs Rowland S. Howard’s insecure ‘Shut Me Down’, it feels like we are staring deep into Gahan’s own anguished, tormented, regretful soul. When he performs Charlie Chaplin’s happy-sad ‘Smile’ – just himself, bassist Martin LeNoble and pianist Sean Read – it has a powerful simplicity and tenderness, his voice beautifully unadorned, revealing a clarity and polish that often goes unnoticed in Gahan’s day job with Depeche Mode. So perfectly understated is the song’s presentation that I would be quite happy if Gahan deferred another Depeche album and followed up ‘Imposter’ with an album of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin covers, just him and minimal accompaniment. Or a big band standards album. Or an album of gospel songs. Or an album of Christmas songs. Or an album of folk songs – just Gahan and an acoustic guitar and harmonica.
The songs picked for ‘Imposter’ originated from a point of low self-worth as a singer compared to the greats (though no one would completely agree with Gahan on this after watching even 30 seconds of a Depeche Mode concert). Here, even more so in a live setting than on record, Gahan has made them his own, his voice as comfortable covering Neil Young, Dylan or PJ Harvey as the sparkly Cuban-heeled shoes he’s wearing on stage. When he performs a primal, raw but strangely inevitable cover of ‘Personal Jesus’ in the encore, it feels like he’s performing a song with lyrics, dance moves and crowd-pleasing gestures he knows as well as the tattoos on his arms, and yet it’s no longer a Depeche Mode song: it is Dave Gahan covering a Depeche Mode song. The difference, in the context of ‘Imposter’ is significant.
‘Personal Jesus’ got the best reaction, but then again any Depeche song would have done. For this reviewer, the most important moment happened during the sparse ‘Lilac Wine’, a song that that deals with the intoxicating consequences of love. Rich Machin’s arrangement of the song made famous by Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley dropped away into near-silence as Gahan sang the pivotal line ‘It makes me see what I want to see / And be what I want to be.’ Right now, this is who Dave Gahan wants to be. It finds him at his most self-assured and humble, perhaps at his most authentic. To watch and share his metamorphosis in one of the smallest audiences since the early days of Depeche Mode was as intoxicating and affecting as the lilac wine of which he sung.
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Words: Mat Smith
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