Who is Personal’s Jesus?

Depeche Mode at Personal Fest 2009
Depeche Mode at Personal Fest 2009
Six months have dragged by agonizingly for Depeche Mode fans who’ve been waiting for Depeche Mode to return to Buenos Aires for one night only, and it is frankly astounding how one band can get a whole capital city gossiping incessantly for half a year like a gaggle of old ladies discussing the fluctuating price of tomatoes. It really has been the highlight of 2009’s musical calendar, outdoing Radiohead, Oasis and the festival’s other headliners, Pet Shop Boys.

That one night was Saturday and Depeche Mode were the driving force behind the festival Club Ciudad in Núñez, and frankly the other 25 acts dispersed across four stages didn’t really figure as passengers or even luggage because the British electronic band comprising Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher that has been making dark, bass-heavy tracks since 1980 was the only reason for 30,000 people being there.

Café Tacuba, for example, closed the Xpress music stage at around 9pm. The Grammy-winning Mexican band led by bushy frontman Rubén Isaac “Ribaac” Albarrán Ortega play alternative rock but dabble in hip hip and electronica, and their infectious tracks also use the distinctive sound that gets any gig going, the melodica. As Ribaac jumped about enthusiastically, the 1,000 or so people followed suit, sang along, but only the very hardcore stayed to see their finale as the rest headed off to the main stage.

At least the Mexicans had a substantial and anonymous audience. Catching the last 15 minutes of DJ Andy Butler in the dance tent, he may as well have been on first-name terms with his, given that just 20 people were still giving it large. How frustrating to watch your audience trickle away, knowing that it has absolutely nothing to do with your performance.

Depeche Mode, musically speaking, perform immaculately. Gahan’s vocals are just as haunting and penetrating live as on CD, and getting the show on the road was In Chains, which was followed up by Wrong. The latter is a track from latest album Sounds of the Universe (they are currently on their Tour of the Universe) which despite being their most recent material, didn’t allow other older tracks such as Enjoy the Silence to show their age. But does a fan only leave a live show satisfied if they hear a favourite song in its familiar, perfected format? Does the disappointment of not hearing it exactly how it sounds outweigh the overall excitement of seeing a favourite band? It seems unlikely any fans objected to Enjoy the Silence being a given a taste of the tropics — a sneaky little bongo beat slipped in after the first chorus as did an acoustic twist as it concluded. It was a satisfying change but Depeche has a such a huge repertoire they could have revamped more material.

The onstage show, however, was not dazzling — they are no Pet Shop Boys who had a female dance troupe in tracksuits busting moves giving some added oomph to the duo on the enormous stage. (Indeed vocalist Neil Tennant even sang with his head in a box at one point.) A concert should be tickle all the senses.

But by track four of their set, Walking In My Shoes, the trio was warmed up and Gahan slipped off his jacket, allowing him more flexibility to give the mike stand some real welly, spinning it and himself dizzyingly around.

Spawned in the 1980s following punk and prior to the new romantics, despite the lack of dazzling performance Depeche Mode still have what it takes, once warmed up. Live they are perfect, so powerful lyrics combined with their synonymous heavy synth and bass sounds means they continue to enthrall thousands for two years regardless.
But a lack of “performance” is a moot point given the fans’ reaction: they bellowed along, jumped and yelled and punched the air repeatedly, and every last one of them would pay upwards of $280 to see them again tomorrow. And because of that enormous nu,bers of believers that Depeche Mode have, that would make them Personal’s Jesus, no doubt about it.

MORE THAN ZERO. But a real festival should indicate a dilemma: that so many fantastic bands are playing, just who should I go and see? Depeche Mode had no competition that night. Or did they? Electronic music continued to dominate Saturday but with a 21st century variant from Zero 7. The British band headlined Personal’s Xpress music stage Friday but managed to sneak in a date at La Trastienda, after, of course, a children’s party and a tango show.

Londoners Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker are the brains behind the operation whose current collaborators include female vocalists and musicians Eska Mtungwazi and Olivia Chaney to form a touring seven-piece, following the departure of Sia, their quirky female voice, a couple of years back. Keyboards and computers dominated the back of the stage as the mad musical scientists Binns and Eddie Stevens in their white lab coats mixed, meddled and twiddled away, throwing in some dubstep, while at the front Chaney worked a harmonium. Bass and drums came from Robin Mullarkey and Tom Skinner respectively.

Here to share their fourth album Yeah Ghost, Zero 7 have taken the pace up several notches in places. Mtungwazi, larger than life and wearing impossible spiky stilettoes, energetically took charge of the upbeat funky tracks which have indicated a departure from previous material, such as Mr McGee, a simple number with hand clapping that got a bit of a slow audience throwing some moves at the front of the stage, Sleeper with its zappy, laser gun sounds, and Medicine Man, a saucy little poppy number with a 60s feel to it that has been electro-ed up for 2009, that she wrote in Binns’ Glastonbury home in a mere 24 hours.

She enraptured her audience, not just because of her powerful, soulful voice that whooped its way through so many numbers, but her natural warmth shone through as she grinned her way through the close-to-two-hour show.

The second female vocalist was the visual opposite to Mtungwazi. A bare-foot Chaney enchanted the crowd with the chilled-out lounge lizard tracks for which Zero 7 are most well known. Her breathy rendition of the guitar-based Pop Art Blue spun us round like a lover, transporting us to that place she describes where the fire needs wood.

Despite Hardaker being the physical front man, handsome and dapper in a white jacket who led the minimal Everything Up and Ghost sYMbOL, it was Binns from the back row who was the compere between tracks, genuinely happy to be playing there and have his crowd at arm’s length. Special mention goes to Eddie Stevens, also barefoot, who at one point unveiled himself from behind the computer screens to take centre stage with some erratic and highly charged shape throwing.

The melancholic and downtempo The Road, which is normally sung by Mtungwazi, won roars of approval as the three vocalists including Hardaker went all acapella, fading out at the end like an angelic choir. As her soul sister timbres are perfect for the uptempo tracks, the fact that Zero 7 keep you musically guessing by taking her out of the box keeps your ears stimulated.

Based on this one show, this British band’s style is hard to define, leaping like a frisky salmon between instrumental electronica such as All of Us, a mix of male and female voices, from groovy uptempo tunes that make dancing unavoidable such as Mr McGee to the slower Solastalgia, where Hardaker’s voice is warped. Who wants to be placed in a box anyway? A band that was propelled to success instantly back in 2001 with first album Simple Things whose music has featured in Sex and the City, House and Numb3rs among other TV programmes, the electronica, the funk, the pop, the instrumental, the whole ruddy lot push limits and it works.

The danger with collaborators is that they do depart, so Distractions, a lilting, poignant track sung by Sia from the band’s first album Simple Things which she clearly made her own, was sadly on the missing list. Obviously most of the tracks at this Trastienda show were not being sung by the original vocalist but finale In The Waiting Line was a perfect way to end. Chaney more than rose to the occasion with a simple, solo, soaring rendition accompanied by her harmonium, replacing original chanteuse Sophie Barker.

All of this is why Zero 7 win this unofficial battle of the bands. Depeche, PSB, all great, they do the job, sing what you want to hear but they do it without the love and passion and enthusiasm that Zero 7 had. It’s hard to compare a 900-person capacity venue with an outdoor music festival for 30,000 but to get caught up in the moment where you can see every last drop of sweat on the musicians, where you’re unable to resist dancing because you’ve been infected by their music means Zero 7 end up being my personal Jesus.

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