To the rousing bravado of a vintage Ennio Morricone spaghetti western theme and a battery of flashing white lights, New Order took the stage at Oakland's Fox Theatre Friday night for the initial show on their first North American tour in seven years. Since their rise in the Eighties, the legendary post-punk English dance band have rarely performed stateside: Even now, the ensemble, currently expanded to a quintet, is only playing seven U.S. shows in six cities, plus another two in Toronto. "It's great to be playing America again," exclaimed uncharacteristically outgoing singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner to fans lucky enough to have scored tickets for a show that sold out in less than 20 minutes. "Here we go!"
But instead of immediately slamming into one of their timeless dance-rock anthems, the current incarnation – Sumner, drummer Stephen Morris, guitarist Phil Cunningham, returning keyboardist Gillian Gilbert and new bassist Tom Chapman, the replacement for Peter Hook, who split acrimoniously with the band in 2007 – gently launched into "Elegia." The band wrote the mournful 1985 instrumental waltz in memory of Ian Curtis, the late Joy Division singer whose 1980 suicide prompted his fellow band members Sumner, Morris and Hook to carry on with Gilbert as New Order. It was a gentle, eloquent statement, one of several throughout this particularly emotional show that both mourned and celebrated Curtis. It also provided a dramatic contrast to the storming next song, "Crystal," the band's 2001 return to Joy Division's guitar-based beginnings. Chapman played in Hook's characteristic style, alternating on his bass between aggressive riffing and much higher, more soulful lead melody lines.
"See if you can guess what this is," Sumner teased before the ensemble launched into New Order's very first single, 1981's "Ceremony," which the demonstrative crowd greeted with one of many eruptive cheers. Gilbert switched instruments to assist in the new arrangement's three-guitar climax. Although much of the evening's lighting kept most members in club-like shadows, with strobes and diagonal beams cutting across the stage like a giant moving tangle of pick-up sticks, a light from above stayed fixed throughout on Gilbert, who last year in Europe played her first shows with the band since 1998. It was a subtle reminder that one of the key ingredients in Joy Division's transition to New Order was the introduction of an understated but essential female presence. The absence of Hook's menacing low-slung-bass stance combined with the return of Gillian's elegant synth parts and almost unprecedented enthusiasm from Sumner meant that this was a decidedly friendlier New Order.
"We've never played this live, so bear with us," the singer warned before the band kicked into "Close Range," from 2001's Get Ready. The evening featured many of New Order's indelible club singles and modern rock radio hits, including sing-along renditions of "Bizarre Love Triangle" and "Blue Monday," and showcased heartfelt versions of three tracks from its classic 1983 album Power, Corruption & Lies – "Age of Consent," "5 8 6" and "Your Silent Face." Sumner frequently acknowledged that many songs have been missing from their set lists over the past few decades, yet nothing about the performance or presentation felt the least bit shoddy or under-rehearsed. A large video screen above and behind the band projected videos for every song, ranging from edited excerpts of experimental New York filmmaker Amos Poe's Empire II during "The Perfect Kiss" to visually remixed renditions of familiar New Order music videos like "True Faith."
Still images of Curtis flashed on the screen during "Atmosphere," lending a reverential touch as Morris provided rolling tom-toms on the brooding song. The band concluded with Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," performed in a higher key that offset the song's bitter resignation with sympathetic sweetness. "Thank you so much; it was great after all this time," Sumner said before walking off. He was speaking for himself and his fellow musicians, but he might as well been summing up the evening from a fan's perspective: New Order without Hook just seems wrong on paper, but on this night at least, it was very, very right.
"The whole year, even though we've done a load of gigs, has been a bit of an expedition, really, to see what we can manage," Sumner told Rolling Stone earlier that day in a conversation that included Gilbert. "But I think it's been the best year of music for us ever. It's so enjoyable. The audiences have been fantastic."
Gilbert, who'd taken time off to raise her daughters, now in their teens, while husband Morris remained on the road, was particularly happy to be back, and shares Sumner's openness to future band projects, which could include recording another album next year. This November, The Lost Sirens, a seven-song set of tracks recorded during the sessions for 2005's Waiting for the Sirens' Call, will finally be released, and there's also the potential for a tour of North and South American next year.
"It's like starting afresh because we don't know what we're gonna do next," she elaborated with a laugh. "Instead of having years planned ahead, we can just do what we want."
New Order's set list:
"Age of Consent"
"Here to Stay"
"Your Silent Face"
"Bizarre Love Triangle"
"The Perfect Kiss"
"Love Will Tear Us Apart"