Depeche Mode 2010Thirty 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 clichés and using it as another spatial thread of the show in which the audience can engage. Tour Of The Universe has continued in that same understated, thought-through style, starting with eight short movies produced by Corbijn presenting intelligent visuals, neither over-used or over exposed.

Corbijn also designed the minimalist stage set consisting of low level risers and instrument stands, a large upstage MiTrix screen, with a 3m x 3m MiTrix sphere flown just in front of it. The main screen literally disappears when the back lighting behind it kicks in, transforming the nature and feel of the performance area.

Joining Corbijn’s visual dream team is lighting designer Paul Normandale, video director John Shrimpton and lighting director Graham Feast who is out operating the tour. Normandale and Corbijn have worked together — on DM and other projects — for over 10 years, so they enjoy a very fluid creative dialogue and chemistry.

Corbijn already had a few ideas and a very clear vision on the table for the tour when the initial design meetings between him and Normandale took place. He wanted to have the spherical “communicator” — an idea that was initiated on the Fallen Angel tour three years ago — and strong, simple aesthetics to define the space.

In pursuance of the “sparse” look, it was essential that lighting didn’t interfere with video, specifically the playback movies, but could add impact, dimension and hold its own as required. An original Corbijn and Normandale visual concept was to change the shape and perspective of the stage with both lighting and video mediums, and this was one of many memorable impressions taken away from the show, with different areas of the screen utilised throughout, together with lighting from different areas of the rig.

Normandale’s design mixes a heterogeneity of instruments, some contemporary, like i-Pix BB4s, and also some classics like Mole Richardson Molebeams, six of which sit upstage of the band — chosen for their antique filmic appearance and “wonderful” organic beams, which are pretty pokey from the 2.5kW light source.

Graham Feast and Normandale programmed the lighting during the initial production rehearsals in Luxembourg before the start of the tour back in May, cross referencing each song meticulously with Corbijn’s screen visuals.

Overhead were four upstage/downstage trusses sub-hung with bespoke curved ladder beams constructed by Total Fabrications. Each one of these was suspended in a Liftket motor and four points of Kinesys automation (operated by Dave Jolly). These glided in and out during the show, very effectively shutting down the space. The four curves were rigged with Martin Professional MAC 700 Profile moving lights.

Two side trusses (left and right) were trimmed at 11’ off the stage, each loaded with five MAC 700 Washes, used for slicing across the stage and very effective low level washing. Up in the roof on the trussing ‘mother’ grid were 10 Atomic strobes with scrollers.

Upstage of the 60’ wide by 30’ high MiTrix screen was a bespoke framework arrangement made from standard Lite Alternative one metre wide interlocking frames, totalling six high and six wide. This was rigged with a combination of 24 MAC 2000 XB Washes, 24 i-Pix BB4s and strobes. These blasted through with massive impact and disappeared back into oblivion when the MiTrix kicked back in.

The floor had been kept clear of lighting for previously stated reasons, apart from eight MAC 2000 XB Profiles behind the band. The low level risers were all fitted with custom LED skirts, and 12 i-Pix satellites were scattered around the risers and used for coloured up-lighting on the band.

No Normandale artwork would be complete without some signature Omni floods on sticks, of which there were 12, scattered around the outskirts of the stage, and then there were the six Molebeams along the back.

There was also a plethora of 4-lite moles dotted all over the various trusses. These were for audience “moments”, but had been carefully positioned to avoid the usual stereotypical blinder looks.

Feast ran the show from a Hog III console, picked primarily because that’s what lighting and Kinesys system suppliers Lite Alternative had in stock at the time. He commented that it had been hugely interesting working with Corbijn and Normandale, observing their creative insouciance and the resulting amalgamation of video and visuals.

It is also one of the best tours he’s ever done in terms of a great atmosphere and fantastic people to work alongside. “It’s a real testament to Tony that it feels like we’ve been on the road for days rather than months,” said Feast with a large grin

Full Report Here