Concert Review: New Order at Williamsburg Park: July 24, 2013
Over a mere $20 I almost didn’t attend last night’s New Order show at the new Williamsburg Park. At the forefront of my mind was the disastrous Squeeze show I’d seen last year at the Roseland, a past-their-prime band performing for a past-their-prime crowd in a cavernous venue devoid of charm. I was worried that New Order – especially without deposed charismatic bassist Peter Hook – in a venue described as a “construction site” would be much of the same. I couldn’t imagine spending the $50 face value (plus fees) or the $50-60 that scalpers were asking for a ticket. It was such a beautiful night though, and the show was a relatively early one (all Williamsburg Park shows are required to end by 10pm), so I was willing to give the aging band a shot … for absolutely no more than $30. With that amount in my back pocket, eventually, luckily, I scored a ticket. In retrospect, as happy as I am today that I landed that ticket, I also cannot get over my own stubborn near-miscalculation that almost cost me a fantastic show.
As New Order took the stage, I was still skeptical. My initial emotion was strangely disappointment as Bernard Sumner, Steven Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Phil Cunningham and new bassist Tom Chapman took the stage, sans Hook. Of course I was aware that Hooky was no longer a part of the band, but it felt like I was cheating on the man who gave me so many wonderful years, most recently including his hilarious book about the Joy Division years and the author event that went with it (see my write-up of that delightful event here). Meanwhile, Sumner came out sporting a Joy Division t-shirt as the group played “Elegia“, an instrumental dedicated to late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, foreshadowing the theme of the evening. Elegia was followed by “Crystal“, a 2001 song notable for its video, shown on the screen behind the band. That screen would play a major role in the night’s events. Throughout the evening the large, crystal clear (no pun intended) screen mainly showed the official music videos for the songs played by the band on stage. This was a great decision by New Order, as many of their videos are excellent and so the crowd’s attention was generally diverted away from the aging, somewhat immobile band (Sumner claimed that he was playing with a broken leg). Crystal then was a terrific first choice, as the intriguing video features a fictional teenaged band called “The Killers” miming the song on stage. This video would inspire the name for the band that would eventually become famous for, among other things, covering Joy Division’s “Shadowplay”. (To make things even more incestuous, earlier this year The Killers covered Crystal, with Sumner joining them on stage.) And so the night of familiar callbacks was underway.
As the band hit the third song, “Regret“, my own feelings of guilt and regret over Hooky were gone, replaced by nostalgia for my teen years. Regret – and the album it kicks off, Republic – is the song by which I first fell for New Order. I was at that age when one is most predisposed to falling for a band, and Regret just gabbed me. It’s not that I didn’t know of New Order before – I would have had to be living under a rock not to know “Bizarre Love Triangle” or “Blue Monday” – but to me those weren’t “New Order songs.” They were just songs. Great ones, yes, but still no more than dance singles like so many floating around at that time from bands that did nothing else of note. New Order was, to me, in that time and place, indistinguishable from the likes of the Pet Shop Boys or Erasure. For whatever reason though Republic – far from the band’s best record – set them apart. Suddenly lost in my past, I felt the night in an entirely new light.
Next up was “Ceremony“, and with that the rest of the mostly-almost-middle-aged crowd was now lost in their individual pasts along with me. The crowd – which felt more genuine, more ready to be pleased than a typical Brooklyn crowd – was waiting for a big hit to let their excitement show and with Ceremony they had it. It’s also New Order’s debut single, actually written before the death of Curtis (he wrote the lyrics), in what was another nod to the Joy Division legacy. Following “Age of Consent” came the first pure Joy Division cover, “Isolation” (also the first song played without its accompanying video, perhaps to partially relieve the sting of the absence of Curtis, albeit temporarily). With Sumner taking Curtis’ place on vocals, the song was powerful and touching but also just a bit lacking. Whereas before I felt the absence of Hooky, for the first time all night I strongly felt the absence of Ian. Sumner did a very good job delivering on this difficult song – I’m glad they gave it a go – but New Order can never take the place of Joy Division.
The next three songs were new to me, and highlighted something I wasn’t aware of when it comes to New Order – their new music is actually pretty good. Earlier this week, in reflecting on Depeche Mode’s new album Delta Machine, I wrote about how that band, instead of pushing forward, is simply putting out poor man’s versions of their pre-1993 music. By contrast, New Order continues to evolve. I particularly liked the second of these three songs, “Here to Stay“, written together with and produced by the Chemical Brothers. “Your Silent Face” was also a good song that was made special by the accompanying video, beautiful footage from the film “The Earth Wins“, which New Order has been showing throughout their current tour. After Republic, the first New Order CD I ever bought, I waited and waited for years for a follow-up album that essentially never came. After years of prolific work, New Order took eight years between Republic and their next album Get Ready, by which time I’d already moved on. It’s no wonder that I lost track of this band, but it’s also obvious that I may have been missing something.
Now at the halfway point of the show, the sun was nearly completely gone and so were the unknown tunes. New Order was about to go on a string of hit after hit after hit. First it was back to Republic with “World (The Price of Love)” (and its stunning music video shot on the beaches of Cannes), followed by “Bizarre Love Triangle” and then “True Faith“. Needless to say, that 1-2-3 was the knockout combination for the ecstatic crowd. Before going into True Faith, Sumner implored the crowd to dance like he remembers people in New York City used to do. Sure enough, Williamsburg Park instantly turned into a nightclub as True Faith was performed with an intense dance-beat and ferocity I’ve never heard before from New Order. At this point in the night I realized that with all my love for Joy Division over the past few years I’d forgotten how great New Order can be. I cannot think of another band that could get a bunch of somewhat older and likely jaded Brooklyn-ites to feel like they were at a club … and actually like it. Darkness was fully upon us, the music completely swallowed up what at once was a large but also intimate venue, lights flashed and pulsated … New Order had taken the hipness of Williamsburg and somehow made the 1980s – the good part of the ’80s – fit right in.
After True Faith was “5 8 6“, which showed off the band’s darker side. Not normally an intense track, 5 8 6 was played in a manner reminiscent to latter-day Nine Inch Nails. Yes, I realize that comparison may seem ridiculous on paper (or screen) – it would to me had I not been there – but standing there under the dark sky as the white numbers flashed across the video screen and the throbbing electronic music attacked like a force of nature, I felt just the way I did four years ago when I saw NIN at a similar outdoor waterfront venue. Extended versions of three more hits – “The Perfect Kiss“, “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” – closed out the main set in delirious fashion.
The band left the stage very briefly while the house lights were turned completely off. In the blackness the only light came from the video screen, where the radio waves from Joy Division’s famous Unknown Pleasures album cover began to build from bottom to top, line by line, the crowd’s energy level rising with each one. New Order re-emerged for an encore set that turned out to be a tribute to the late, great Ian Curtis. (If you’ve read this far, you may be interested in my tribute to Curtis, which happens to be my favorite post on this site.) All three songs played in the encore were Joy Division covers – “Transmission“, “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart“. Earlier in the evening – and in this post – I wrote “[a]t this point in the night I realized that with all my love for Joy Division over the past few years I’d forgotten how great New Order can be.” Upon hearing Transmission, I remembered exactly why that happened. Dancing frantically, just as Ian would – “Dance! Dance! Dance! Dance! Dance to the radio!” – Transmission was the highlight of my night. Sumner did an absolutely brilliant job pulling off this song. He didn’t quite do as well on Atmosphere; no one can do justice to this emotionally devastating song, not even Sumner. It didn’t matter though. The video, which has always been a tribute to Ian, was so moving seen on the big screen and in this setting that I could have been on vocals and the effect would have been achieved. Finally, Love Will Tear Us Apart – which has probably been covered by more bands than any song in the history of Western civilization (168 official covers by one count) – was covered by New Order, again not quite reaching the lofty heights that this song is capable of. No matter – I wouldn’t have traded this emotional song trilogy for any other encore that New Order could have conceived. The night was as perfect as an Ian-less, Hook-less show could have possibly been expected to be.
As for the “construction site”, some will argue that setting up a stage on Kent Ave and N. 12th St. is putting lipstick on a pig. Well Mr. Strawman, if that’s your contention then I’m dating this pig, at least under the right circumstances. Of course it would be nice if there was some actual greenery (as Sumner himself noted) but for my money I would rather see a show illuminated by the sun (and later the moon) on the edges of the water than in a gutted gym like the Roseland or Terminal 5 any day. (Except for a rainy day I suppose.) Williamsburg Park may not be a park, but it is spacious, the stage is elevated nicely so that it can easily be seen from just about anywhere, and the sound is excellent (as good as any outdoor space I’ve been to). With the right band handling lighting and video – and New Order is the right band – the arrangement of Williamsburg Park actually adds to the quality of the show.
Overall, other than the National at Barclays Center (and let’s face it – that band owes a lot to Joy Division), this was the best show I’ve seen all year. And to think – I almost missed it over a mere $20.