November 29, 2023

REVIEW: Depeche Mode's Memento Mori Tour

Depeche Mode
Moda Center
November 28, 2023

"Remember you must die," the translation of the Latin phrase memento mori, is not as bleak as it might seem. As deployed by Depeche Mode, it's an inspiring call to action: live your life. 

Weighty stuff, especially in light of the synth-pop legends' recent history, having lost founding member and keyboardist Andrew Fletcher at age 60. Fletch's sudden 2022 passing found longtime creative brothers Martin Gore and David Gahan without a tiebreaking vote, and bereft of a mediating, good-humored figure in the room. Still, it was a motivating event. The duo carried on, creating the 2023 album Memento Mori, their 15th studio effort, and their first involving an outside songwriter, Richard Butler (Psychedelic Furs). Life looked different, but it went on.

The show must also go on. Touring the globe is what Depeche Mode does best. At their Oregon tour stop, their 72nd (!) show on the Memento Mori World Tour, Gore and Gahan were in fighting shape, bringing longtime colleagues Peter Gordeno (keyboards/bass) and Christian Eigner (drums) along for two hours of surging catharsis. Fletch, given a moving tribute during "World in My Eyes," would have approved.  

A mysterious pendulum of joy and pain, getting through this thing called life. While they've always operated on a grand scale sonically, lyrically and emotionally  Depeche Mode's ethos may best be described as "widescreen"  it seems these Basildon, England lads David (61) and Martin (62) recognize the stakes more than ever now. 

Fletcher's departure clearly heightened Depeche Mode's sense of duty, and it permeated every moment of their two hours onstage. Gahan, deeply invested, was a strutting/posing/spinning live dynamo, and with his red vest and slicked-back hair, he recalled both the Emcee from "Cabaret" and Bono's Zoo TV tour character Mr. MacPhisto. Inimitable and magnetic as he floats around the stage, the frontman somehow appears both earthbound and weightless, striding about and waving his arms — he's like an inflatable air dancer outside a car dealership. Meanwhile, Gore, with his signature blonde hair and sleeveless look, was a reliable anchor, alternately hunkered down behind synth banks, playing guitar, and singing. Here are two lifelong friends and collaborators, still at it, still concerned with style and substance.

Attending a Depeche Mode concert is akin to being a light bulb — by taking your seat, you're twisting into a socket, and awaiting the Gore-Gahan power company to turn the current on. Performing in front of a giant, incandescent "M" with a high-def video screen, the quartet delivered that high voltage repeatedly. There was the adrenalizing triple-shot of "Walking in My Shoes," "It's No Good" and "Policy of Truth"; the reverberant, gothy "Black Celebration"; and Memento Mori's "My Favourite Stranger." The latter is a nasty bit of post-punk business, and found Gore and Gordeno forcefully playing guitar and bass, while Gahan and Eigner joined them in what felt like sonic Joy Division cosplay.

For all the varying intensity, Depeche Mode also found opportunities to loosen things up and have fun: they switched places (more on that below), added patient intros that initially obscured certain songs' identity, and extended classics like "Enjoy the Silence" with rhythmic breakdowns that kept the party going. As members of a world-beating, stadium-filling juggernaut, these guys could easily be aloof, but they truly came off like gracious dudes throwing a party for 20,000 people.

The charismatic Gahan is naturally Depeche Mode's focal point, but Gore had some top-shelf moments in the spotlight. The first was his lead vocal performance of "Strangelove" while Gahan was offstage on a quick break (a nifty role-reversal that underscored Martin and David's equal footing in the band). The second was a perfect rendition of "A Question of Lust"; when Gore crooned "It's a question of not letting what we've built up crumble to dust," that lyric held more meaning than ever before.

On the subject of Gahan and Gore, they were chummy throughout, interacting in a way that should reassure fans about Depeche Mode's future. They even high-fived each other at one point with both hands (is that called a "high ten?"). The most touching moment between them, however, was their duet on Violator's "Waiting for the Night." Standing together at the end of the ramp that jutted into the crowd, they serenaded the crowd as much as each other, and embraced at the end. One could imagine Fletcher observing this tender display from another dimension, smiling down on it all.

Depeche Mode's now 43-year tenure has found its principals well-versed in the art of performance and setlist construction. New material from Memento Mori was given proper due with four of its tracks performed, including the hypnotic, industrial "My Cosmos is Mine" and the existential meditation "Wagging Tongue" ("Everything seems hollow / When you watch another angel die," sung Gahan on the latter). Unavoidably, death is a motif that pervades the new album and tour; it was referenced in such visuals as the revolving skulls during "Enjoy the Silence" as well as video of a black-robed Gore and Gahan playing chess during "Ghosts Again" (think Max von Sydow vying against death in "The Seventh Seal").

Speaking of motifs, other keywords crop up repeatedly in Depeche Mode's universe of sin, desolation, and redemption. The words "angel" and "pain" are two examples — "John the Revelator / All he ever gives us is pain," proclaimed Gahan on one of the surprise deep cuts of the evening, and this, a mere four songs after belting out "A Pain That I'm Used To." Still, perseverance and transcendence exist within the group's worldview. Arriving mid-show, "I Feel You" from 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion brought such messages as "Your heart it sings" and "I am whole." In the encore, "Just Can't Get Enough" lifted spirits to the rafters with its carefree, joyous propulsion. Contrary to some beliefs, desire doesn't always have to bring suffering. 

"Just Can't Get Enough" was, well, not quite enough. Unfinished business remained that any self-respecting Depeche Mode fan knew was coming, but still relished the idea of. The band launched into "Never Let Me Down Again" (an epic movie in song form, if there ever was one) followed by "Personal Jesus" to close it all out. The shuddering walls of sound washing over the audience during this end piece demonstrated the singular power of Depeche Mode — an immersive, soul-cleansing baptism by synthesizer.

Yes, we must die. But first, more life-affirming experiences like this, please.

November 4, 2023

REVIEW: The 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Rock Hall induction ceremony 38 is now in the books. What worked? What didn't? What should the Hall improve upon for future dispensations of "Music's Highest Honor?" It's time to unpack all that transpired during last night's gala at Barclays Center.

WHAT WORKED

  • Every ceremony comes loaded with the possibility of that lighting-in-a-bottle "wow" moment, and the unannounced appearance of Jimmy Page performing "Rumble" for Link Wray was exactly that. The increasingly reclusive Led Zeppelin guitarist apparently couldn't resist paying tribute to his hero Link. And sly move, Rock Hall, having Page in the video package for Wray, with no expectation, necessarily, that there would be any performance (for category honorees, there is no certainty of "full induction treatment"), only to have him appear in the flesh. One truly wonders if it's the last public appearance Page, 79, will bother making (hopefully not). Further, one hopes the Hall has learned their lesson: Relegating guitar legend Wray and "Rumble" into the now-defunct "Singles"category back in 2018 was grossly insufficient given his impact. Honoring him in this way under "Musical Influence" was a classy, corrective masterstroke.
  • Quite simply? The production value of the staging. The hyper-real video screens they are using now as backdrops (deployed with a regal, gold color chromatics during L.A.'s 2022 induction) looked impressive on the Disney+ livestream. Dynamic colors and shapes, gleaming blue pyramids that evoked the museum in Cleveland, a colorful, hovering UFO as Missy Elliott's show-stopping musical performance began... well, no expense was spared on these huge visuals. Live music events are now competing against the MSG Sphere in Vegas, so the Hall leveled up. (Maybe a Sphere ceremony is in the Hall's future? Vegas, baby!)
  • The video packages were informative and engaging as always. These mini-documentaries on each honoree are an art form unto themselves, and provide a window into inductees' lives and career trajectories. The packages also capture artists like Kate Bush and Rage Against the Machine in their searching, brazen youth, their souls aflame and ready to knock the earth off its axis. Bush admitting her perfectionism, and shown treating her music and visuals as high/confrontational art — while decked out in full regalia in her music videos — suggested her influence on an artist like Bj√∂rk. Elsewhere, seeing grainy video of Rage Against the Machine playing their first gig at Cal State Northridge in October 1991 suggests they arrived fully formed; lying ahead of them after Northridge, hundreds of stances to take, endless Molotov cocktails to light, and to paraphrase their song "Wake Up," scores of fascists to bomb a left on like they were Cassius.
  • Speaking of "full regalia," Sia bears mentioning. Technicolor-attired, with a huge pink-bow atop her boxy, rainbow wig-adorned head, the singer was top-heavy and seemingly wheeled out as if she was a parade float. Sia donned all this garish armor to sing "I'm Every Woman" with Chaka Khan, and this get-up may just go down in history as one of the most playful and exotic visuals at any Rock Hall ceremony, ever.
  • Among various emotional moments on this evening, Queen Latifah and Elliott's deep love and respect for each other, evidenced by their interactions onstage during Elliott's induction, was touching. Missy doing the "I'm not worthy" bow to her friend and hero, while Latifah discarded prepared teleprompter dialogue to give Missy a needed "catch your breath" moment was a real moment of support and friendship. Latifah, a major influence to Missy and countless others, should also join the inductee ranks. 
  • Musical Influence honoree DJ Kool Herc's rise from his seat and trip to the stage to accept his honor, while breaking down in tears, underlined that, when the Rock Hall does the right thing (hint, hint) and immortalizes undeniable pioneers, long overdue, it means something. Amid the Rock Hall's slow-changing, often perplexing realm, a place where it's easily justifiable to be cynical and lament inequality, representation imbalances, and the seeming implausibility of real progressive change, there remains the potential of justice coming to pass. The Herc induction is one of those times, and was the first deeply emotional moment of the night; he wept through his speech, calling out people that are no longer here, such as James Brown and 2022 influence inductee Harry Belafonte. Cindy Campbell, Herc's sister who threw the famous rec room party where Herc started the hip-hop movement with two turntables, stood by his side and also said a few words. That a Rock Hall induction can mean so much to someone is why it's worth fighting for, why it's worth calling out when the Hall falls short. This pioneer's tears should inspire every Rock Hall executive to energetically fix what's wrong, and achieve the "stretch goals" of overall institutional excellence. 
  • Miguel's sterling take on "Careless Whisper," for late Performer inductee George Michael (inducted by his Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley), reminded viewers of the magic that is summoned when a guest performer is well-matched with the material (Jake Clemons on sax was a welcome surprise here, too). Carrie Underwood's reading of the rising-and-falling "One More Try" demonstrated that she also understood the assignment. Same goes for St. Vincent's mesmerizing take on Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill," pop phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo trading verses with Sheryl Crow on "If It Makes You Happy," and New Edition's joyful, serotonin-rush performance of Spinners classics. The Spinners segment, complete with a "Soul Train" logo dropping down and dancers recreating the visuals and energy of that TV show (the program's impresario, Don Cornelius, was also honored on this night) was exhilarating, and did right by the overdue, four times-nominated R&B vocal group. (One genuinely wonders if most people watching realized New jack swing legend Bobby Brown was onstage, performing with New Edition). 
  • The triumph of the elders was a leitmotif last night, and it was downright heartwarming. "It's a dream come true," said surviving Spinners member Henry Fambrough (85) via video, accepting the award. Erstwhile Spinner member John Edwards (78), who sang with the group from 1977-2000, also appeared by video to accept. It's funny how time slips away: Willie Nelson, 90 years young, was seated throughout his time in the limelight at Barclays center, but hey, he made it. And speaking of the Red Headed Stranger...
  • You have to tip your cowboy hat to American treasure Willie. His induction segment started with Dave Matthews' heartfelt acoustic performance of "Funny How Time Slips Away," followed by Matthews' speech. Nelson career milestones were noted, such as Patsy Cline recording "Crazy" and how the country icon has recorded 72 albums. Also included in Dave's prepared words were mentions of the Outlaws and the Highwaymen, two groups Nelson was in with Waylon Jennings, as well as Nelson's Farm Aid concerts. (And is is this first rock hall speech that's ever quoted comedian Bill Hicks?) Matthews' breathless, rambling speech that was nonetheless endearing (and may just get Dave Matthews Band on the ballot for a second nomination). Nelson's video package showed him with Johnny Cash, and detailed his overall journey and the "Nashville Sound" that he wanted to move past. In a key move, Nelson moved back to Texas, grew longer hair and became the artist he wanted to be (one might also call this the George Carlin trajectory). Musicians in video include Chris Stapleton (he mentioned how normal people, hippies and cowboys all gathered around the Willie campfire), the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, the late Ray Charles, and Norah Jones (she had high compliments for "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain"). In his acceptance speech, Nelson talked about working with with Ray Charles, Leon Russell, and Booker T. Jones, and plugged Jennings and Kris Kristofferson for Rock Hall induction. His relatively brief words led into his performance of "Whiskey River" (backed by a snappy band including Stapleton and Don Was), "Crazy" with Sheryl Crow, and the inevitable "On the Road Again" with Matthews, Crow, and Stapleton. This "On the Road Again" performance might be about as "countrified" as the Rock Hall induction stage has ever been. Cowboy hats, beards, Willie's headband... some CMA Awards-type stuff. 
  • Non-inductee (!) Peter Frampton joining Sheryl Crow on guitar for "Every Day is a Winding Road" was a welcome sight. Double inductee Stevie Nicks also sang on the number, remaining onstage after dueting with Crow on "Strong Enough." Oscar winner Laura Dern did the induction speech for Crow, making this the second consecutive ceremony where a Hollywood actor spoke for the first inductee of the evening (Robert Downey, Jr. took this slot in 2022, ushering in Duran Duran). 
  • Chaka Khan's induction portion was uniquely memorable, even beyond the Sia wardrobe. Her inductor was R&B talent Jazmine Sullivan, who said that Khan was celebrating her 50th year in the business (inadvertently emphasizing how long it took the singer to be honored by the Hall). Khan's video package featured no less than Michelle Obama, Joni Mitchell, H.E.R., and Grace Jones, and noted the Black Panther rallies Khan attended as a young person. It also showed Khan performing with Whitney Houston, Miles Davis, Prince and Rufus (the latter group frequently nominated with Chaka in her earlier, failed nominations). "She's just leaving it all on that stage in every performance," H.E.R. beamed in the video. Speaking of performance, Khan offered a medley including a terrific duet with Common (covering the Melle Mel rap portion) on her breakdance-worthy Prince cover "I Feel For You." Elsewhere, H.E.R. played guitar on "Ain't Nobody" and stayed onstage for Rufus' "Sweet Thing." Finally, the Sia rainbow appeared for "I'm Every Woman." During her speech, Khan noted that without Rufus, she would not be where she is today, and brought out Rufus guitarist Tony Maiden. Khan's induction was a long time coming, delayed justice after seven nominations. 
  • While Ahmet Ertegun award honoree Don Cornelius' segment was among the briefest of the night, the question of why "Soul Train" was important was answered in no uncertain terms. In Cornelius' video package, Questlove called the show "a religion," going on to say that it was a depiction of black joy. Also appearing in the video were Lionel Richie, Chaka Khan, and Aresenio Hall. "This was our classroom," noted Richie.
  • Al Kooper's acceptance, via video, of the Musical Excellence honor was particularly gratifying. He's a retiree and 79 years old, and it seemed he was really savoring this recognition. In an unusual move, Kooper narrated his own video package, which chronicled his astonishing collaborations, including Bob Dylan (Kooper played the organ intro to "Like a Rolling Stone"); Jimi Hendrix (he appeared on Electric Ladyland); guitarist Mike Bloomfield; Blood, Sweat and Tears; and Lynyrd Skynyrd (he discovered and produced them). "It's been quite a long run for me," Kooper said, adding that it all began in 1958. (The great studio pianist Nicky Hopkins would be a fine choice in this slot next year.)
  • Public Enemy's enthusiastic Flava Flav was thankfully on camera several times, resuming the bouncy cheerleader role he originally took up amid the expensive tables at the 2013 ceremony.
  • Morello's impassioned acceptance speech as the lone member of Rage in the house was a keeper. "The world is not going to change itself... the world is changed by ordinary people that have had enough," he declared. Inductor Ice-T, who did his speech with no teleprompter, shared a great story: "We gotta go on after them?!" he recalled about an early gig where Rage opened up for Body Count (he said Zack de la Rocha started that show by leaping 5 feet into the air). He later added, "If you wanna go down in history, you gotta either make something or break something." 
  • Missy Elliott's sensory-overloading extravaganza at the end of the night was outstanding, and it came complete with a UFO landing, a hologram and a high-energy, backing dancer-loaded medley of "Get Ur Freak On," "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)," "Work It," "Pass That Dutch" and "Lose Control." How great is it that Jimmy Page was watching all this?
  • Finally, "Go Bernie Taupin" (and not just for suggesting Merle Haggard for induction). Someone had to say it, since the Hall (unlike Rolling Stone magazine, which made a statement and has published follow-up articles) despite rapidly ejecting Hall co-founder Jann Wenner from its board, has not followed up with even a simple, closure-giving statement of how they will go forward following recent controversy (sparked when Hall co-founder Wenner told a New York Times interviewer that he didn't feel that women and black artists were articulate enough to be included in his new book The Masters). Taupin, accepting his Musical Excellence honor, chimed in when no one else did: “I guess you could say my being inducted is a paradox, perhaps, but either way, I’m honored to be in the class of 2023 alongside a group of such profoundly articulate women and outstanding articulate Black artists along with all of the other music masters here tonight.” Indeed, for the Rock Hall, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word." 
WHAT DIDN'T WORK / SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

  • This was a four and-a-half hour show (last year's was 5.5 hours), and it ran relatively seamlessly (Elton John loitered at the mic a little too long prior to his Taupin speech, waiting for a cue), but speeches by Matthews and Morello came off rushed. There must be visible countdown clocks, as is often the case with these awards shows, but some participants clearly interpret those as stressors, and it shows. No one wants long speeches, but there is a fine line and maybe some finesse due in the area of letting the podium pilots breathe a little.  
  • Teleprompter issues evidently threw Kate Bush induction speaker Big Boi off a bit. Stumbling over mixed-up words on the prompter he stammered, then jabbed, "Who the fuck?... Did you go to class?!" Other podium issues included microphones that were too low. Some technical issues are par for the course, but if this thing will now be streamed live, it's time to tighten it up.
  • Speaking of the Disney+ streaming user experience, some folks on social media reported frustrations finding/seeing the Rock Hall livestream due to the app's parental controls being on. Mickey Mouse and Ice-T, an unholy combination, to be certain. 
  • No way to fix this, but the Hall's gamble that Rage would reunite and blow the roof off of Barclays Center did not pay off. It's too bad, but where Morello sees Rage's induction as a mass communication possibility, perhaps his singer perceives it as compromising with corporate entities. If one looks at the optics of a Disney+ and ABC-broadcast show, and then considers de la Rocha's lyrics in Rage's song "Bullet in the Head" it makes a bit more sense: "They load the clip in omnicolor / Said they pack the nine, they fire it at prime time / The sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz / And motherfuckers lost their minds...  Just victims of the in-house drive-by / They say, "Jump", you say, "How high?"
  • Ice-T is an artist that has flipped off the establishment in myriad, dramatic ways, which makes him a terrific choice to induct Rage. But it would have been even better if Body Count had tackled a Rage song, in lieu of an actual Rage performance. As hard as it would be to rap Zack's vocal parts, maybe the Hall still could have enlisted Body Count, or another substitute performer in this case. (That said, Ice-T's walk out music, Body Count's "There Goes the Neighborhood," was tremendous. There are specific songs one never expects to hear at a ceremony, and that would be one, with 2022's "Rico Suave" being another.)
  • Ending an induction ceremony with an acceptance speech, as happened last night with Elliott, is a weird way to bring these dazzling annual events in for a landing. It's like they pack the ceremony with constant fireworks, only to have no "grand finale." It's possible something was cut at the last minute. An all-star jam around the 50th anniversary of hip-hop is possibly something that was in the works.
  • That brings up an issue around how the showrunners structure the artist induction segments; music performances, induction speeches and acceptance speeches were shuffled around in a chaotic, variable order. This not only resulted in the Elliott speech being the end of the night (and this, after her off-the-charts performance that felt like the "thrilling conclusion"), but Crow performing one song, which led to speeches, which led to more performances, etc. At past ceremonies, there was an induction speech, an acceptance speech, and then the performance, which may not make for the most enthralling television sequence, but it prevents the awkward scene of an out-of-breath inductee who just sang, danced and/or played guitar having to run over to a podium to accept their trophy. A tricky problem, admittedly, but one that should be worked through. 
  • Resource allocation is tricky with so many stars involved, and yet, it seemed a bit like blatant overexposure to have Crow appear for a third time for The Band's "The Weight," performed after the In Memoriam segment in tribute to Robbie Robertson. Especially when that number included the amazing vocal power station Brittany Howard, who might have taken an extra verse instead. Sometimes less is more, even at a jam-packed extravaganza such as this. Crow did great, and it's no dig at her talents, but this thing is packed with potential participants and other individuals might have been better slated in for that (Rodrigo, even? Get that cross-generational vibe happening). 
  • Robertson will be sorely missed. He was a titanic musical talent, a member of The Band, a Scorsese film score maestro, and notably, a longtime member of the Hall's Nomination Committee. The music tribute to him was appropriate enough, but it's tough not to think of other options related to the dearly departed that, all due respect, might have happened instead. ("The Weight" is practically a cliche at this point; your drunk uncle is probably singing it at a coffeehouse open mic as we speak.) There is precedent for doing a musical tribute to late musicians that are not inductees (Exhibit A: Jerry Cantrell and Ann Wilson did "Black Hole Sun" for Chris Cornell at the ceremony in 2018), so, just putting this out there: What about Howard singing "Nothing Compares to You" for Sinead? Perhaps Matthews sings a Jimmy Buffett tune ("Come Monday")? Or, if there is to be fidelity to inductees, what about Frampton peeling off some stately Jeff Beck licks? So many possibilities.
  • Overall, this ceremony paled a bit in comparison to the 2022 edition. It's tough to say why, but with Bush and Rage members conspicuous in their absence, it makes 2022 moments like Judas Priest's appearance and Eurythmics' commanding reunion feel even more special. Dolly Parton and Rob Halford, opposing electrons drawn to center stage together singing "Jolene" ...well, there's no parallel moment like that in the 2023 show (for sheer jaw-drop quotient, Page's high-voltage "Rumble" comes closest). Like wine, these ceremonies are akin to vintages; some taste better than others, and others age more gracefully. It will be interesting to see how history treats the 2023 ceremony, but this was an intriguing mosaic of inductees, and the induction of the first female rapper in Elliott means a glass ceiling was finally shattered. 
  • Finally, a note around matters of institutional identity. The Rock Hall has now branded induction into its ranks as "Music's Highest Honor" This is very close to the Grammys' tagline, "Music's Biggest Night." It seems minor, but it also could be construed as a step toward competing with the Recording Academy to a degree. The Rock Hall ceremony up to this point was an elusive, prerecorded music awards show, edited for later broadcast on HBO/MAX that, in 2023, jumped over to a Disney+ livestream, with a trimmed, three-hour version to air on major (Disney-owned) network ABC January 1, 2024. There were specific moments in last night's ceremony that felt spiritually similar to a Grammys show, such as the George Michael performance (no dig on it, it was mostly excellent), with its tandem of Miguel, Adam Levine, and Carrie Underwood. When you have Elton John, Chris Stapleton and Sheryl Crow onstage singing together, that feels Grammys-esque, too. It's not that it's "bad," it's more of a subtle, abstract thing. There's a certain smoothness and a drift to the middle. The Hall should study what the Grammys are doing, and locate incremental ways to distinguish its own tentpole event a bit more. As these inductions get bigger, more expensive, and put in front of more eyeballs, it should not be lulled into becoming "safer" and Disney/ABC-ready. It should have a touch of danger and a lot of attitude... that's rock and roll, after all.