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Synth Saviours

There are reasons Depeche Mode is so often called "critic proof." The group's performance this past Saturday night at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise was, in a word, transcendent. That sounds like hyperbole, but ask any of the nearly 20,000 people in attendance that night. The performance drew its otherworldy strength from a simple, powerful stage show; flawless, haunting renditions of its classic material; and of course, the adoration of those 20,000.

Frontman Dave Gahan, synth-pop's broody pinup, is still shamanic in his focused intensity and, despite a recent battle with a bladder tumor, looks fit and shiny. Songwriter and guitarist Martin Gore's presence is more understated but no less dramatic. It is in Gore, with his silver-sequined three-piece suit, seemingly eyebrowless face, and sighing, dramatic vocal deliveries that the influence of David Bowie is felt most strongly.

And the performance made a strong case for Depeche Mode as a still-vital band rather than a moldy-oldies revue. There were several renditions of cuts from the band's latest album, Sounds of the Universe – "Wrong," "Hole to Feed," "Little Soul," and "Miles Away/The Truth Is" among them. Of course, though, eventually came the big hits.

After a brief set by the Swedish indie-rock group Peter, Bjorn and John, Depeche Mode finally appeared about 9:30 p.m. Gahan came out last, in a dapper tonic suit and a rockabillyesque coif, illuminated from behind by a skyscraper-sized LED screen. With no introduction — was any needed? — he launched into the lead track off Sounds of the Universe, "In Chains," thus kicking off a nearly two-hour performance. Gahan, Gore, and company managed to enthrall an arena without pyrotechnics or choreographed moves, just a simple, shifting backdrop of vaguely creepy video set to match the tone of each song. The staging was spare but epic and seemed as though the light were emanating from the musicians themselves.

Not that the band members just stood there. Gahan busted out some snaky hip moves and eventually ecstatically tossed aside the jacket. Gore himself took center stage a few times, accompanied only by his guitar and a keyboardist. The classic "Shake the Disease" was turned particularly poignant, becoming a slow, torch song-style entreaty.

If Depeche Mode's music on record can be brooding, even cold, the atmosphere at this show was one of pure joy. Whenever Gahan performed a nimble little microphone-stand twirl, the audience roared. And if you have ever felt like a person with singular, solitary, very important problems — try getting wrapped up in a singalong to "Enjoy the Silence" in a crowd of thousands. The ant-like sensation is both existential and life-affirming. And sure, several big-time singles were noticeably absent from the list – no "People Are People," no "Everything Counts," no "Just Can't Get Enough." But the band was still about crowd-pleasing. The final, final encore? "Personal Jesus," of course. Some things are still sacred.