Far, far away from the group once known for bubbly synth-pop anthems like "Just Can't Get Enough" and "Everything Counts," Depeche Mode circa 2009 has pressed its small army of keyboards and electronics into the service of primal urges and raw sexuality. Not terribly surprising from a band that once sang about playing "Master and Servant," perhaps, but the degree to which the trio (plus another keyboardist and drummer) has infused bleeding-fingernail blues into its once-pristine electro sound really was - Sunday night at the Woodlands, it was like Kraftwerk had suddenly and enthusiastically discovered the collected works of early 20th-century bluesmen Bukka White and Son House.
The set started at a simmer, as Depeche snaked its way through three songs from this year's Sounds of the Universe album: "In Chains," "Wrong" - a post-techno descendant of Dr. John's "Right Place, Wrong Time" - and "Hole to Feed," a mountain of "I Want Candy" drums that was all groove and little else, a signal something big was coming. The crowd stood politely, swaying in place, waiting for something they actually knew. Then Depeche really sank the hooks in with "Walking In My Shoes," a sensual, seductive twister that, stripped of its electronic adornments and Martin Gore's scratchy fuzz guitar, would have made an excellent torch song for Etta James or Ella Fitzgerald.
The blueprint (as it were) of Depeche's seedier sound Sunday was 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion, which finally welcomed guitars and live drums into the band's aural palette and spun off the grinding, palpably erotic "In Your Room" and "I Feel You" near the end of Sunday's set. But the seeds were sown three albums earlier, on 1986's Black Celebration, which itself contributed an eye-popping four songs. First up was the harrowing jailbait pursuit "A Question of Time," with singer Dave Gahan spinning the mic stand (and himself) around better and faster than Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Celebration's "Fly on the Windscreen" came not long after, with Gahan rasping about ubiquitous death while looking impossibly skinny, pale and dead sexy. Vampiric, in other words - considering the degree the undead are currently haunting pop culture thanks to Twilight and True Blood, no wonder this band is still so popular. In the encore came "A Question of Lust," a solo showpiece for Gore and one of the few songs Sunday with one of those stately, neo-classical piano lines that defined Depeche 1.0. - this is a band that once used Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" as a B-side - and "Stripped," a piece as predatory as it is erotic.
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Experienced lovers that they are, Depeche kept the audience waiting - and waiting... and waiting... - for the climax, teasing through more of Universe (Elvis Costello-ish Gore solo piece "Little Soul," electro-blues "Miles Away/The Truth Is") before getting down to business with a popping "Policy of Truth" that delivered rock-and-roll swagger via a heavy synth payload. "In Your Room" and "I Feel You" steamed up the windows a little more, then "Enjoy the Silence" hit electro-twang paydirt with Gore channeling the Commodores and Earth, Wind & Fire in a funky guitar coda. An IMAX-size "Never Let Me Down Again" closed the main set in a sea of hands and a jazzy two-finger solo from Depeche Third Man Andrew Fletcher. After the encore began with the two aforementioned Celebration songs, "Behind the Wheel" burbled in the shadows as the intensity mounted. Release came, utterly and completely, when Gahan sang the cue from "Personal Jesus" - "reach out touch faith" and the Pavilion exploded for five minutes of pure orgasmic gospel-blues stomp. Finally, "Waiting for the Night," an unexpected lost treasure from Violator, wafted over the spent audience like the smoke from a post-coital cigarette. Was it good for you too?
Set List In Chains Wrong Hole to Feed Walking In My Shoes It's No Good A Question of Time Precious Fly on the Windscreen Little Soul Home Miles Away/The Truth Is Policy of Truth In Your Room I Feel You Enjoy the Silence Never Let Me Down Again
Encore A Question of Lust Stripped Behind the Wheel Personal Jesus Waiting for the Night