Saturday, July 05, 2014

Stellar Summerfest Show Helps Me Appreciate New Order's Proper Rank, Even If Out of Sequence -- Milwaukee Concert Review

Concert Review

New Order
BMO Harris Bank Pavilion
Milwaukee Summerfest
July 3, 2014

I won't waste six paragraphs rehashing my musical proclivities and parochialism during the 1980s, but suffice it to say I was late to the party when it came to electronic and/or goth-tinged British bands of the era. 

Though a good bit post-dated, I've long since come around to The Cure and Depeche Mode--having seen each a few times--and to a lesser and varying extent, I've enjoyed oeuvre explorations of The Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen and Love & Rockets . 

But for one reason or other, I've never paid much acute attention to New Order.

Sure, some of their biggest songs--"Blue Monday," "Bizarre Love Triangle," "Love Vigilantes"--were unavoidable during my college years, and imbued whatever requisite fondness comes with familiarity, but I never sought out anything further.

At one point I did look into the music of Joy Division, the pioneering post-punk band that became New Order following the suicide of singer Ian Curtis in 1980. But while I appreciate that band's legacy and influence, I've never fully embraced the gloomy vocals and dour lyricism emblematic of Curtis, and even though New Order seemingly had a more upbeat and danceable soundscape, somehow I never much cared (in part, regrettably, because as something of a teenage heavy metal fan, I wasn't supposed to).

Yet in recent years I've repeatedly heard their festival appearances get raved about, and even saw part of one--they were scheduled against a band I knew better--but sufficiently intrigued, I was compelled to head to Milwaukee's stellar Summerfest on Thursday to check out a full New Order show at the BMO Harris Bank Pavilion.

Their scheduled 8:00 performance came after spending most of the day at Summerfest--by far my favorite music festival--plus a visit to a wonderful Kandinsky exhibit at the nearby Milwaukee Art Museum. (I'll write and post a review of the exhibition separately.)

Early at Summerfest, I caught an unknown band performing Alice in Chains' "Man in the Box" and a guy named Daniel Amedee doing a lovely acoustic rendition of U2's "Running to Stand Still," accompanied by a woman named Sara on vocals.

For lunch, I got a great Lobster & Shrimp BLT from Burke's Lakeside, and couldn't reside trying a Frookie--fried cookie dough drizzled with chocolate and topped with vanilla ice cream--from the same vendor, which also had a Mac 'n Cheeseburger on their intriguing menu. 

After listening to Southern rock band Blackberry Smoke for about 45 minutes--they sounded pretty good but I was unfamiliar with their material excepting a brief Allman Brothers cover--I made my way to the BMO Harris Bank Pavilion around 5:30, where a set from Rush tribute band Animation was already in progress.

I had seen them last year, prior to seeing the real Rush at the Marcus Amphitheater, and think they do a really strong replication. (The Zac Brown Band was headlining the Marcus on Thursday, but I was happy opting for New Order at no extra cost; thanks to an offsite vendor with discount tickets, my entry to Summerfest was just $5.)

I couldn't help but smile as a small but fervent crowd pumped their fists and played air drums as Animation delivered strong versions of "Limelight," "Free Will," "Closer to the Heart," "YYZ," "The Spirit of Radio," "Working Man" and more. 

They were done by 7:00 and although there were roughly 2,500 empty seats in front of mine in the back half of the pavilion, I had to stay put as--unknown to me until after the fact--reserved passes had been handed out at Noon for the "Blue Circle" seats. 

Fortunately, a nice Wisconsin couple--including a woman originally from Evanston--wound up sitting next to me, allowing for food and restroom forays without losing my seat. 

Right at 8:00, the listed special guest--a Warhol-haired DJ monikered Whitney Fierce--took the stage. 

I assumed she would spin tunes for a half-hour and make way for New Order, allowing me to catch a bit of several decent 10pm side stage artists--Ziggy Marley, Rise Against, The Hold Steady, The Fray, Cowboy Mouth--but, with a thousand pavilion seats still empty, she played hypnotic (a.k.a. mind-numbing) music until 9:50. Without suggesting that she was unskilled at her craft, the highlights consisted of the commencing of an hour's worth of lakefront fireworks and the odd appearance of a far-less-stylish roadie who danced at her side.

Which brings me, a bit belatedly--in multiple contexts--to New Order. 

While I was certainly a New Order neophyte compared to the woman next to me, and presumably most of the crowd, I found their 105-minute set to be terrific. 

Lead singer and guitarist Bernard Summer is 58 and looks it, but though considerably stouter than he was in 1985--who isn't?--his voice sounded strong and he even did a bit of dancing, though not much more impressively than the eventually full pavilion of stout white Wisconsinites (and Illinoisans, etc.) also reliving their youth. Or in my case, reliving someone else's black eye-shadowed youth.

Having studied up for the show by Spotifying tunes included in recent setlists, I enjoyed pretty much everything I heard even if I had to verify several song titles after the fact (with help from

I knew New Order had played Chicago's Aragon Ballroom on Tuesday, and somewhat rued the omission of Joy Division's "Transmission" that had been played there. But other than their eschewing of "Love Vigilantes" in recent years (it's still my favorite song of theirs) there wasn't anything about their show--which, according to Sumner, was the band's first Milwaukee gig in 25 years--that was less than satisfying. 

A great romp through "Bizarre Love Triangle," and "Blue Monday" with an extended instrumental intro were certainly highlights, but perhaps as a consequence of my deferred familiarity, brand new songs  "Singularity" and "Plastic"--the latter played for just the second time after debuting in Chicago (YouTube clip from Milwaukee)--blended in perfectly while sounding essentially as good as New Order's first single, "Ceremony," written in the Joy Division days, and "Age of Consent," "Your Silent Face" and "5 8 6" from 1983's Power, Lies & Corruption.  

In introducing "Plastic," Sumner--who graciously thanked the crowd after every song played--commented that "As a band, it's important that we write new material."

And though, per Wikipedia, Sumner  has now twice reconvened New Order after breakups, it's to their credit that the new material is considerably better than it has to be.

Backed by supplementary and/or interpretive videos, the band was dimly lit throughout much of the show. Combined with my primarily perusing their biographies, watching Joy Division clips and starting the Ian Curtis biopic Control after the show, this caused me to lack proper reverence for Sumner being accompanied by Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris and his wife, keyboardist Gillian Gilchrist, who was also an original New Order member. 

Joy Division and longtime New Order bassist Peter Hook is no longer with the band, which is now rounded out by Phil Cunningham and Tom Chapman. 

Although New Order's sonic and visual dance-rock feast was the focal point of the 17-song show--lengthwise the same as at the Aragon, impressive for a side-stage festival performance--Joy Division certainly factored into some of its finest moments. 

Sumner introduced "Ceremony" as a Joy Division song--it was written shortly before Curtis' death--and in returning to the stage for a couple of encore songs, he uttered, "This is for Ian," as the band played Joy Division's "Atmosphere" accompanied by a video that included monk-like figures carrying over-sized images of the late singer, who had suffered from epilepsy and depression.

Having opened with "Elegia," a 1985 New Order instrumental written in memory of Curtis, the show ended with a (relatively) ebullient rendition of "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which was released after Curtis' death and became Joy Division's biggest hit. 

I don't know that I will seek out New Order's entire catalog, a New Wave-haircut or the Psychedelic Furs--though I would be interested in seeing Echo & the Bunnymen if their upcoming Chicago show wasn't at the Metro--but even if I'm rather old to be just arriving at the New Order party, I'm glad I got there in time.

Apologies for the subpar audio, but here's video I shot of the closing "Love Will Tear Us Apart":

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks for writing. For someone "late to the New Order party", you certainly did your homework and captured many of the finest attributes of this transcendent band.