‘It’s been a horrible couple of years. Let’s have a party and try and make up for it,” begins Bernard Sumner, kicking off the biggest hometown show of New Order’s 41-year career. They’ve certainly returned with a bang: 35,000 people have crammed into a field to see lasers, computer graphics, able support acts Working Men’s Club, Hot Chip, and DJ Tin Tin, who powers Madchester classics into the cool night air.
After 18 months of Covid, the vast audiovisual spectacle feels very Never Mind the Pandemic. It isn’t necessarily the best environment to see a band, though. Burger pongs, gigantic bar queues, jostling punters and zero social distancing don’t always make the most comfortable audience experience, and when someone holds up a flare it chokes everyone nearby. Still, any moans are forgotten once Regret soars into the night sky like an aural balm.
At a more intimate show in Halifax, Yorkshire, two days previously, New Order delivered an audiovisual masterclass, with lasers bouncing off the beautiful 18th century Piece Hall. Here, additional big video screens make it possible to see individual members at rudely close quarters. During a breathless Age of Consent, cameras zoom on the hyperactive Stephen Morris (wearing a Nasa T-shirt), as if to show that the “human metronome” really is a 63-year-old bloke in glasses and not a drumming robot.
New Order’s 80s dance/rock hybrid provided the blueprint for much of modern pop, but the latter-day five-piece lineup bring different textures. Bassist Tom Chapman has had the unenviable task of replacing founding member Peter Hook, who left acrimoniously in 2007, but he turns in some elegant basslines of his own. Sumner and Phil Cunningham’s interlocking guitars give Ultraviolence more post-punk edge. Other oldies have been thoroughly retooled. Gillian Gilbert’s keyboards take Sub-culture clubbing. Bizarre Love Triangle has a new intro, then segues seamlessly into Vanishing Point, from 1988’s Ibiza-drenched Technique.
Classics come along like buses but, unlike with most bands of this vintage, more newer material wouldn’t actually go amiss. The excellent Tutti Frutti, performed in Halifax, makes way for 1985’s The Perfect Kiss and its sampled croaking frogs in Manchester. But Restless, from 2015, with its refrain “In this changing world, I am lost for words”, could be a post-pandemic anthem. The hurtling Plastic, from the same year, with dub echo on Sumner’s vocals and touchingly dedicated to its late backing singer, Denise Johnson, has become one of their best live numbers. And lockdown single Be a Rebel, with its parental advice to a “different” child, is one of their loveliest songs in years.
“It’s great to be alive again,” quips Sumner, now 65 and bespectacled, as True Faith and electronic milestone Blue Monday start the promised party. A disco ball descends as the shimmering Temptation triggers an outbreak of massed wobbly dancing, while a three-song Joy Division encore is a special treat. Love Will Tear Us Apart has people hugging in their droves, 1979’s Transmission still sounds sci-fi and otherworldly, and Sumner turns accordingly mournful for the serenely hymnal Decades.
Ian Curtis only got to sing the Closer album’s epic finale five times, before his suicide ended that band and led to the beginning of this one. Forty-one years on, watching slow-motion images of the young singer gaze over bandmates he never saw grow older feels unusually emotional. It’s a mesmeric reconnection with a darker past by a band whose best music still sounds plugged into the future.
• New Order play the O2, London, on 6 November.