Dave Gahan's Top 5 Live Vocal Performances
(with video links)
April 18, 2021
Let's face it. Depeche Mode would not be where it is today if it were not for Dave's voice. It has a distinct sound that we all recognize, even when he's not singing with his flagship band. It has gone through some highs and lows (speaking of both tone and quality!). But it's safe to say that it has served Dave well throughout his long career. In this article, we look at the times during which it has served him especially well. This is a list of what I personally consider to be Dave's top 5 live vocal performances. Before we begin, let's lay out some criteria, first.
What qualifies as a "live performance?"
Obviously, any performance that is not pre-recorded is considered live. That means we are hearing Dave's unadulterated vocals from the time he performed them. Now, that doesn't mean that the vocals aren't post-processed later to an extent, to get rid of external artifacts like audience noise, flaws in the recording process itself, etc. And yes, there may be minor tweaking of the vocals, themselves, for various reasons, but for the most part, we are talking about truly raw vocals as if Dave were in the room singing right next to us. Thus, the things that we do not consider as "live performances" for the purposes of this article are recordings like album/single tracks and performances that are lip-synced. With that now out of the way, let's get on with the top 5! Note that these are in no particular order, and also that the dates are from when the performance was done- not when the song was released.
1. "Stories of Old," Chung King Studios (2009)
This version takes an old, synthesizer-heavy Depeche Mode deep cut and strips everything down to just vocals, electric guitar, and a smidgen of synth. Before the singing begins, Dave isn't shy about showing his invisible audience that he needs the full lyrics of the Some Great Reward classic to look at while he sings, as it has probably been a very long time since he had sung this song. I'm sure he had to run through it a few times off-camera before going on camera for this, but the final result does appear to be done all in one take. The key is at least a couple of whole steps lower than in the original, so we get to really hear Dave exercise the lower part of his vocal range. He does appear to struggle just a bit hitting those really low notes during the part, "I couldn't sacrifice anything at all to love," but he does hit them. He also seems to sing with a little bit of an Elvis-like inflection, and I wouldn't even mention this aspect at all except that after the song ends, he actually mutters, "Thank you very much," in that unmistakable Elvis drawl, so I do wonder if it is all somewhat intentional. Overall, this is a very good vocal performance by him, and I commend him and the band for choosing such an obscure track to give this kind of treatment to.
2. "Stripped," 101 (1988)
If Dave had peaks in his vocal performance, then I would say this is definitely one of them. Of course, this also implies that there are "valleys" or periods when he wasn't at his best. But that is an entirely different subject, altogether. Anyway, Dave was definitely at a peak during 101, both vocally and career-wise, as this was an absolutely pivotal time for both him and Depeche Mode. Dave's voice was very smooth, resonant, and clear during this whole concert, reflecting someone who was very confident and experienced at his craft. The performance of "Stripped" during this show is the very best live performance of this song, period, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. Unlike in later performances, he sings every line, and his voice rings loud and clear, showing no signs of exhaustion or struggling to hit any of the notes.
3. "In Your Room," Devotional (1993)
If 101 represented a peak time for Dave's singing, then Devotional is definitely another one in that category. Note that the exclusion of any performances from the World Violation Tour from this list is purely unintentional, and is a result of the fact that I cannot find any high-enough-quality recordings from it such that I can pull from. But I have no doubt that Dave has some stellar vocal performances from that tour, as well, that are worthy of this list. Anyway, Dave was at the top of his game, performance-wise during Devotional, though something that may be of some controversy is that he was taking steroids for his voice at the time.1 Could that have contributed to his seemingly super-human singing abilities at the time? Perhaps. But we are not here to dissect how Dave gets his vocal abilities...we are just looking at which ones are simply among his best. And if drugs are a part of what got his voice there, well, it is what it is. Sorry to digress again, but yes, this is the performance during which he dives from the stage right into the crowd in front, surfing among extreme grabbing hands for a while before several guards pull him out and put him back onto the stage. He completely loses his shirt in the process, but not his enthusiasm or voice.
4. "When the Body Speaks," One Night in Paris (2001)
This is another highly-commendable vocal performance by Dave, not only because it is very good, but also because of how difficult it is to pull off under the particular circumstances presented here. Not only is it a slow and soft number, where even the slightest flaw would easily be heard and stick out like a sore thumb, but it followed several other numbers that would've easily worn a novice singer's voice out by this point. For this case, though, he had also just gotten done with some wild dancing and spinning in "Dream On," so being able to transition right into this very mellow ballad without being completely winded is quite a feat. Admittedly, there are signs of possible fatigue when he relegates the singing of the "ohhh" refrains to the audience, but honestly, I am impressed by the amount of control he has over his soft singing that he does pull off well as, for instance, I would probably be a shaking and panting mess by that same point. And as if to further show that he is not the least bit fazed, he pulls off that falsetto cooing at the end beautifully and flawlessly.
5. "The Meaning of Love," Casablanca (1982)
This may seemingly come from left field and feel like I'm really reaching here, but hear me out. This performance from 1982 came at a time when the band was still very young and thus, Dave had not been doing so many live performances as of yet. Yet, his vocals are just so on point here. There is no cracking, no faltering, no out-of-tune notes...no auditory flaw in his voice as far as I can hear. And this song is not that easy to sing...in fact, try singing along to it, yourself, and try to get everything pitch-perfect. I am not a singer, but I can recognize that there are a lot of note and key changes that happen quite fast. It also goes pretty high for Dave's vocal range, but in spite of all of that complexity, he hardly seems to break a sweat at all here. This is probably not the best example for showcasing Depeche Mode as a band or Dave as a musician, perhaps, but as far as live vocal performances go, I consider this quite high up there in quality.
Bonus: Honorable Mentions
Dave has done so many good live vocal performances that I couldn't list them all here! Here are some others worth mentioning.
"Saw Something," Hourglass — The Studio Sessions (2007)
Obviously, he can't harmonize with himself live like he does on the bridge in the recording, so he chooses to sing the lower line which is probably a wise choice in order to protect his voice.
"Hold On," Electric Lady Studios (2003)
Not a complex song to sing by any means, but Dave's voice sounds so tender and smooth as butter here.
"Heaven," Live Studio Session (2013)
Notice the way Dave pulls the microphone away while singing the highest notes? He's essentially following Tip #7 here.
"Take Me Back Home," MSR Studios (2015)
His timing and sound on the call-and-response sections are immaculate. Another hit from this same session: "Shine."
What do you think of this list? Do you agree or disagree with anything here? Were there any live vocal performances that weren't on this list but should've been? Please comment below!