Live review: Depeche Mode @ Red Rocks Amphitheatre

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Depeche Mode singer David Gahan got his voice back in time for his band’s show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre last week, but that wasn’t enough to save the show. Photos by Mark Osler.

Depeche Mode played two sides of the coin at its Red Rocks show last week. On one side, the seminal British synth-pop band relied too heavily on nostalgia, putting forth a mediocre performance of a sub-par set list that tried (and missed) to recreate what made the band special in the first place. On the other side, the band rocked a set that paid little attention to its immense catalog from the ’80s, focusing instead on the darker music that has defined its songs since the release of 1990’s “Violator.”

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Both are true. The show was heavy on nostalgia and light on substance — and most of the nostalgia was of the slightly more recent variety. But the lasting impression of the band’s Colorado show was fleeting and impermeable. What could have been a veteran band making a statement, a declaration of vitality and relevance, instead waffled into an unmemorable singalong.

Did I sing along with Gahan and Martin Gore as they worked their way through the set? Sure, I did. But that didn’t make their Red Rocks show a quality concert.

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We’ll start with the setlist. Sure, they’re going to throw four or five songs in from the lackluster, new outing “Sounds of the Universe.” And while “Wrong” is an O.K. addition to the band’s catalog, the others — “In Chains,” “Hole to Feed,” “Jezebel” and others played — are little more than filler.

The oldies were solid. “Fly on the Windscreen” sounded thick but lacked the sneer of the original. “Somebody,” opening the first encore with only Gore and a mate on keys, was quite pretty and solemn. “Never Let Me Down Again” was the night’s highlight, a driving collaboration that had the band connecting on all fronts.

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“Songs of Faith of Devotion” was a great record in ’93, but it’s hardly worth three songs in concert in 2009. “Walking in My Shoes,” “In Your Room” and “I Feel You” sounded excessive and odd, especially since the band wasted two more slots with songs (“Home” and “It’s No Good”) from ’97’s disappointing “Ultra.”

Yes, this is a lot of time to spend dissing a band’s setlist. But it was warranted. Keep one of the “Faith and Devotion” songs, and that leaves four open slots for something else — a new approach to anything off “Some Great Reward” or an old, by-the-numbers take on something from “Music For the Masses.” It would be easy to give the band props for sticking (mostly) to their latest work if their latest work warranted celebration, but it doesn’t.

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The evening’s other major misstep: The embarrassing graphics that accompanied each song on the mammoth screen hung behind the band. The graphics (of babies and old men, of trees and ravens) were amateurish, ridiculous, superfluous and unnecessary. The stylized/distorted live feed — close-ups of Gahan and Gore — were much more tolerable than the elementary, nonsensical graphic design that too-often plagued the screen. And while that may seem like a small part of a concert’s experience, the design cheapened everything from the music to the performance.

That said, it wasn’t a terrible show. Depeche Mode has never been a legendary live band, but still, they didn’t live up to their already-limited potential. And for songwriters of their experience and caliber, that’s just wrong.

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Ricardo Baca is the founder and co-editor of Reverb and an award-winning critic and journalist at The Denver Post. He is also the executive director of the Underground Music Showcase, Colorado’s premier festival of local music. Follow his whimsies at Twitter, his live music habit at Gigbot and his iTunes addictions at Last.fm.

Mark Osler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Denver photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his work here.

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