It’s a fact of growing older that the bands you loved as a kid are probably not going to age gracefully. Their once skinny leather-clad bodies will grow bloated, their voices will no longer be able to hit the same notes, and their spiky mops of hair will thin. Just as likely is that they will not be able to retain the original line-up that seemed like such an inherently cohesive unit not that long ago. This is sadly sometimes a fact of losing members from this mortal coil, but just as often it’s a case of clashes of personality and/or money.
In the case of New Order, much of the above applies. Although the Manchester legends made a truly great record last year (Music Complete), live the band is a disappointment, playing listless versions of a setlist that has changed very little in the last couple decades. It is for this reason, as well as longtime tensions with frontman Bernard Sumner, that bassist Peter Hook left the group in 2007. Since then he’s been touring with his band, the Light, working his way through the New Order and Joy Division catalogs, playing each album in its entirety in chronological order.
For their latest outing, Hook and company are playing the New Order and Joy Division Substance records released in the ’80s. Though playing these compilations is probably more akin to playing a greatest hits set than playing studio albums in their entirety, there are tracks on the New Order record that the band gave up playing long ago so hearing them alongside the frequently heard big hits is nonetheless welcomed.
Hook began his second of two nights at Webster Hall with the New Order portion of the show. The band, which includes Hook’s son Jack on bass along with three former Monaco bandmates, guitarist David Potts, keyboardist Andy Poole, and drummer Paul Kehoe, took to the stage first, running through “Murder,” an instrumental single left off of “Substance,” before Hook appeared. After strapping on his bass, he led the band through “Procession,” another single from New Order’s early years not included on the comp. The track’s mix of oscillating keyboards and bass thrusts was immediately innervating, revealing the austere pop sounds that first distinguished the band. Similarly, the rarely heard “Cries and Whispers,” which like the song before it, was produced by Martin Hannett, was striking for its contrast of elements unsmoothed by melody.
Of course, once Hooky and his collaborators began “Ceremony,” the first track on Substance, there were no more surprises. But knowing what was coming didn’t lessen the impact of hearing songs like “Everything’s Gone Green,” “Thieves Like Us,” and the underrated “State of the Nation,” cuts New Order probably hasn’t played in decades. By comparison, “Temptation” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” seemed perfunctory, although this evening’s run through “Blue Monday” was strikingly invigorated. The band plays each song much like they were originally recorded, although not necessarily like the remixes on Substance. With Hook singing in a much lower range than Sumner, the vocals are the greatest difference. As highlighted on songs like “Confusion” where he took on some of the leads, Potts has a better voice for the material, and in fact, sounds very similar to Sumner. (He also looks a bit like the singer did when he was younger.) So why not let him sing it?
I’m sure it’s a matter of pride for Hook, but as demonstrated by the second half of the show, the Joy Division songbook is more in his vocal wheelhouse. As with the New Order set, they began with a handful of B-sides. Among these “Novelty” was particularly potent, Hook’s bellow juxtaposed with Potts’ scorched guitar work. But when Hook began Substance with a shout of, “Three, five, oh, one, two, five, go!” the show immediately hit peak-level. Hook’s renditions seem at once true to the original recordings and full of life, although like most Americans, I have no live precedent to which to compare it. “Transmission” was similarly emboldened, with the dual basses of Hook and son providing extra propulsion. The track order of Substance lends itself to a certain denouement, with the somber “Atmosphere” coming before the climatic splendor of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Hook dedicated the latter to Ian Curtis, who it’s hard to imagine as the 60-year-old he would have been today had he not taken his own life. He might also be an intumescent version of his younger self, squabbling with Sumner and Hooky. Fortunately, he remains forever young, while his music, as Hook reminded us, remains eternally powerful.