Depeche Mode's Friday night headlining set at Lollapalooza began with a whimper. First, there was the tiny, steady blip of a pre-recorded drum track. Then came a bed of synthesizers, misty and mysterious. Finally, Dave Gahan's voice — barely a whisper — floating above. When all of those elements finally cohered, it was pure rapture — a kind of revelation in phases.
In a way, that slow build and long sustain is an apt metaphor for Depeche Mode's career. A trio of over-styled foppish young men, they were nobody's top pick for arena giants, let alone a sure bet to be bankable career artists when they started 30-plus years ago. Their quirky techno seemed built for the moment, not for the ages. Even their name means "fast fashion."
Funny thing, though: Depeche Mode have not only endured, they've prospered, and during their startling and frequently riveting set they proved that often the greatest rewards come from patience and restraint. Their songs remain mysterious and doomy, Andy Fletcher's black synth lines walking lockstep around Martin Gore's grizzled, distorted guitar. Live, they feel fantastically ominous: "Hole to Feed" was primal and thumping, its icy electronics contributing to the air of menace. "It's No Good" was all cold industrial grind, Gore's weird, robotic guitar lines coaxing the song to an apocalyptic conclusion. As they did in New York last week, they concentrated on slower, deep cuts, which yielded their greatest dividends for longtime followers (some of the more casual fans at Friday's show were a bit exasperated by this decision).
The key to the group's sustained potency is Gahan. He was a dynamo Friday night, gliding across the stage, spinning on his heel, hefting the microphone stand above his head and punctuating verses with a triumphant, hollered "Oy!" When his low, haunted croon met Gore's pained bleat they seemed to form a single voice — a strange disembodied howl rising up from the center of the machine.
Kings of Leon's songs seem a more traditional fit for the big rooms. Their Friday night set — they played the North end of Grant Park while Depeche played the South — was frequently thrilling, if a shade more conventional. The Kings burned breathlessly through a string of blistering, blues-based rock numbers, all of them sewn up with silvery riffing and centered around Caleb Followill's gruff holler; the group's neat trick is the bleeding heart they bury at the center of all that bluster. In a way, their fiery rock is Depeche Mode's polar opposite. Where that band uses mournful synthesizers to mask sinister intentions, the Kings use a mighty sound as a cover for sensitivity. "The Bucket" found Followill promising "I'll be the one to show you the way," while the skyscraping chorus of the triumphant "Use Somebody" masked a plea for companionship.
So perhaps its no surprise that what made the group so charming Friday night was their humility. "We do know exactly what we have here," Followill acknowledged near the end of their set, "and we know that there are a million other bands that deserve to be here." The group then launched into "Manhattan," a moody number from their most recent record. Other Kings songs storm in guns blazing, but this one was underplayed, a few twinkling guitar lines supporting Followill's howl.
"Who needs avenues, who needs reservoirs," he sang, "Gonna show this town how to kiss the stars." If Friday was any indication, he's got a few hundred thousand people ready to show that town right along with him.