December 2009 Issue 124
Thirty years in and Depeche Mode are still delivering intelligently crafted visuals and groundbreaking production, as Rachel Esson & Louise Stickland discovered at Geneva’s Palexpo Arena on the tour of the universe …
If there were to be a TPi Award for ‘Friendliest Tour’, then there’s no doubt that Depeche Mode would win it hands down. They say that a good vibe comes from the top down, and on this tour it rippled from the good spirit of the band and key production staff, led by Tony Gittins and Helen ‘Hels Bells’ Smith — from the pink and fluffy production office which light-heartedly disguised their incredible organisational and logistical skills.
Gittins commented: “Hels Bells and I did the 2006/07 tour and it was a great experience so we were really looking forward to doing this one, they are probably the best band we’ve worked with — very grounded and great performers.”
“Depeche Mode are a really nice bunch of guys,” added FOH sound engineer Antony King. “They sit in catering with us and are very down to earth, which is good considering they’ve been doing it for so long.”
Our trip to Geneva’s Palexpo Arena on November 10 proved that Depeche Mode’s phenomenal 30-year live performance career shows no sign of waning. In fact, the Tour Of The Universe, so named after their 12th studio album, Sounds Of The Universe, raised the bar once again with an innovative set design underpinned by a sophisticated application of LED visuals and technology.
Rehearsals kicked off in April in New York and the tour, orchestrated by tour manager Tim Lougee, began with a European leg of stadium gigs launching in Luxembourg on May 6, which required eight trucks from Stagetruck and four buses from Beat The Street. Rock-It Cargo handles freight, Music By Appointment manages travel and Eat Your Hearts Out provides catering.
Production rehearsals in Luxembourg were attended by Simon James, a director of The Event Safety Shop (TESS) who trained the crew for the SPA’s Safety Passport and carried out an audit of technical and other risks, after the company was approached by Gittins and advance site co-ordinator Chrissy Uerlings to develop safety management system for the tour. James commented: “This was part of an overall plan from Tony and Chrissy to nurture a positive and proactive safety culture on the tour. What this means is that touring crews adopt safe working, look out for each other and try to spot risks before they become accidents.”
Back in the TESS office Tim Roberts was busy developing a range of documents to help the tour navigate the requirements of various countries, venues and enforcing agencies. “Chrissy and Tony had a really clear idea of what they wanted to achieve with various briefing sheets and sign-offs,” added James. “For a tour where a lot of the production is sourced locally (including stages, roofs and electrics), it is critical for the tour to be able to explain clearly the technical standards and crew competence they require of suppliers, and that the tour has done everything it reasonably can to ensure the whole set-up is safe and secure.”
Although gigs had to be cancelled between May 12 and June 7 due to lead vocalist Dave Gahan’s bout of gastroenteritis and a leg injury, it pushed on and headed for the U.S. in July for more stadium gigs. We caught the show shortly after it arrived back in Europe for the latter stint of arena dates that will finish in February 2010.
Gittins said the main challenge, besides the logistics of doing nine stadium shows in 17 days in South America, was the practicalities of building a stadium show that could easily be cut down, but create the same effect, for the arenas. To achieve this they designed the show to fit arenas and used scaled down arena stages supplied locally, then added side screens and some synchrolites for the stadium shows, for which they also used local stages, with many supplied by Stageco.
The only other elements of the set they toured with were Total Fabrications’ bespoke designed risers and the large demisphere of MiTrix LED from XL Video. For arenas, the number of trucks was reduced from 10 to eight.
It must be hard work to make a big barn like Geneva’s Palexpo feel intimate and personal, but for Dave Gahan, it seemed an effortless challenge as he strutted his stuff, paraded his spectacular body art and belted out hit after intricately-worded hit.
Depeche Mode’s visuals have always been edgy and innovative, with much of it down to the fertile imagination of their long time creative director, photographer and film maker Anton Corbijn. They were one of the first bands to tour a large scale video set up on 1993’s notorious Devotional tour, which is sadly more remembered by most mainstream sources for nearly ending in shreds of mental instability than as an aesthetic and technical masterpiece.
Moving image has been at the essence of their live presentation ever since and few do it better than Anton Corbijn.
Corbijn evolves the video for each tour in an imaginatively cerebral fusion of expression and ideas, always avoiding the latest technological clich