Dave Gahan and the Soulsavers – live at Town Hall, NYC
October 22, 2015
Town Hall in New York City is one of those historic theatres, built at a time when acoustics mattered. Not to mention comfort, or the rare quality of being able to see the stage from wherever you are. It’s a far cry from the herd-them-in warehouse style of Terminal 5 or even Barclays Center where Depeche Mode played last time they were in NYC, where the economics of scale count more than quality. Did Dave Gahan choose it specially to highlight the vastly intimate proportions of a new album, Angels and Ghosts, which demonstrates a trajectory that purposely leaves behind the arena appeal of Depeche Mode? Or was it just available? Either way, there’s a quiet hum that fills the room as the mix of post-work suits and leather and black-clad Devotees file in. 815pm, and everyone who expected to make a late arrival is missing the instrumental intro. This is a one on one, intimate encounter, unspoiled by any preliminaries.
When the band finally enter, the cheers cascade on top of the applause. But it’s nothing compared to the swell of recognition when the elegantly attired Gahan, maroon jacket, black shirt and trousers, hair slicked back, comes into view. He creates a distinctive silhouette, oddly recognizable even in the half-lit shadows of the stage. When the first song, “In the Morning”, starts up, the lights grow slightly brighter, and the shouts, in contrast, reach hysteria levels. Will the music all be drowned out by the crowd? But the faithful want to hear him. Thankfully, because the sheer power of his voice, warm, and deep, rich, ringing out to the very back row, is almost incomprehensibly good. There’s something of the angel and demon there, that gospel feeling paired with the rock force of a vocal instrument used to carrying over drums and screams and other musicians who want their due. But that’s the magic of the partnership between Gahan and Rich Machin of Soulsavers and the entire outfit – Martyn LeNoble on bass, Sean Read on keyboards, Kevin Bales on drums, Rich Warren on guitar, Duke Garwood on guitar and horn, as well as the great backup singers – Wendi Rose, Janet Ramus and TJ Cole. They form a tight, cohesive outfit that has the chops and ears to listen to each other. There’s a musician’s appreciation of space and timing, and respect for the strengths of Dave Gahan’s voice that hasn’t been seen, dare I say it, since Songs of Faith and Devotion. And clearly it’s not the vocal instrument that has changed much, but the setting.
Physically, Gahan resembles nothing other than a sort of magic black-clad sprite (once the jacket goes), a caged dancer, filling up the stage with his presence and wiry energy. In this setting, the time honored Depeche moves – shaking his hips, wagging his ass at the audience, the strange little dance steps – don’t seem to be a nod to his regular band. Now they belong only to him, his lithe figure overflowing with a force he can barely contain, his voice releasing some of the fervor. In songs like “Don’t Cry”, or “The Last Time”, as he calls on the audience to respond, it’s impossible to refuse this exhortation, and the audience begins to be swept away by his intensity, with an increasing abandon. It’s especially at those moments that the gospel feel of many of the songs makes perfect sense. It’s a personal and universal journey. Lines like “This will be my last time, scratching and tapping my troubles away” from the beautiful “The Last Time” speak to a suffering that he clearly is in touch with and remembers, but is able to extend out to all longing, all of our struggles.
Of course, there’s no denying that Depeche Mode, from a certain point onwards, spent time exploring the blues and gospel roots of American music, melding them into a dance infused electronic grunge. It was a combination that worked more magically than one would expect from a so-called new wave, electronic band from the other side of the edge of London. But with the stellar production values demonstrated on Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion, (missed by many), it all worked. And, it’s fair to say when Johnny Cash covers one of your songs, you’ve clearly hit a vein.
In 2015, the gospel nod, the slow vibe, the backing singers, made the theatre feel like a church, the streets of NYC left behind, as Gahan encouraged the faithful to feel. To respond! When the band ended with “My Sun” and he said good night, we all knew it couldn’t be the end, whether we’d taken a sneak peek at the LA setlist or not. Those of us that did (confession time) knew more was coming. And when the band came back on, and Dave said, “you may know some of these, or not”, the wave of adoration that washed up from the crowd as he swept into two of the best known songs from his first two solo albums, “Kingdom” and “Dirty Sticky Floors”, lifted the energy even higher. As the notes of “Condemnation” rang out, the figure on the stage upon whom everyone was irresistibly fixed was a washed clean Gahan who looked for a moment like the passionate lost soul he was in those days, but now able to continue channeling that edge without further damage. And his powerful voice – riding on the support of the excellent Soulsavers – did full justice to the classic. The last song, “Walking in My Shoes”, also from Songs of Faith and Devotion, provided a moment of rare fulfillment, a musical synergy between band and singer and listeners, where all rose together and exhaled as one. That the second part of the show fit seamlessly with the new songs from Angels and Ghosts was testament to the symmetry between the two, the quality of the new offerings standing tall next to the classic history of the past.
Someone on Tumblr said “we were in the presence of god.” Perhaps, but certainly Dave Gahan breathed life into all of us, made the audience rise above our dusty, downtrodden souls. A magical moment, as was once said. It was a show that set the bar very high for whatever Depeche Mode might decide to do next. One has to hope that Dave Gahan’s ability to infuse a song with his damaged and resurrected, scarred and persistent strength will be front and center, where it belongs. Thanks to Rich Machin and Soulsavers for a collaboration that respected those considerable abilities – and for the brilliance of the band that let everyone shine that night.
Review by Alice Severin