New Order Redeems Long Houston Absence at Day For Night Set

New Order
Day For Night Festival, Silver Street Studios
December 19, 2015

New Order’s virtual anonymity has long been one of their greatest assets. Almost unique among bands that can pull in a crowd numbering in the thousands, like the one that filled Day For Night’s carpeted main-stage area Saturday night, the upstart festival’s Day 1 headliners have long gone without a recognizable visual signature, something that can be easily slapped on T-shirts or even album covers.

Instead, New Order prefer to let their music project whatever image needs projecting rather than let that burden fall on where it usually does in most rock bands: an unusually charismatic front man or flamboyant lead guitarist or, every so often, on both. Bernard Sumner is almost a lead singer by default, not just because he stepped up to the microphone when Joy Division’s Ian Curtis killed himself in May 1980 but because he lacks the kind of extroverted personality usually essential to the job description; he all but admits as much in his recent memoir, Chapter and Verse.

New Order is just a band of regular blokes and one woman who, thanks to their canny songwriting and affinity for technology, happen to make some pretty extraordinary music. They would be a major get for any U.S. festival, but made an especially perfect fit for one aiming to set itself apart as something truly different. At Day For Night, the dominant image was of the five band members — Tom Chapman and Phil Cunningham alongside original members Sumner, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert — silhouetted against a kaleidoscopic array of graphics and visual effects no doubt enhanced to the nth degree by the numerous strains of aromatic weed wafting around the field. But we also got some good-natured banter from Sumner, including an explanation of sorts for the band’s absence from Houston since an April 1989 show at AstroWorld’s Southern Star Amphitheater: “It was a bit hot the last time we played here.”

Not to worry. New Order’s nearly two-hour set (plus encore) was so uplifting and festival-worthy, it was even easy to forgive the long hiatus, as well as the inevitable “Houston, we have no problem” groaner from Sumner. The band’s first album in a decade, September’s Music Complete, anted a good half of the set, alternating between fleet-footed guitar-rockers (opener “Singularity,” “Restless”) and clubbier tracks where the pas de deux between keyboards and beats took over. For “Plastic” and “On the High Line,” the shift toward dance music likewise pushed the visual effects into trippier, more abstract territory that still couldn't top the dancing geometric shapes that accompanied “Bizarre Love Triangle." (More conventional rockers, by contrast, were largely assigned real-world imagery ranging from aerial footage to an old Peter Fonda film.)

What makes New Order New Order, though, is the deft way they can slip a tangy guitar lick into even the funkiest hothouse disco jam, as on Music Complete’s “Tutti Frutti,” the same way even their more guitar-based work gets extra zip from a rhythmic pulse so urgent it almost seems more than human (and could well be). What that means in a festival environment is that it's nearly impossible for New Order to miss. Singles-wise, alongside two prime latter-day examples in “Crystal” and “Waiting For the Siren’s Call,” Saturday also saw the transition marker from Joy Division into New Order, 1981’s “Ceremony,” and two well-chosen album tracks from 1983’s Power, Corruption and Lies, “5-8-6” and “Your Silent Face.” Three classic singles — “The Perfect Kiss,” “True Faith” and “Temptation” — closed out the main set in as perfect a fashion as any festival could hope for.

Not long after that, the set ended the only way it could, with however many thousand people who were there in that open-air field lost in their own private throes of ecstasy as they danced to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” — which takes on a jaunty, almost power-pop cast live — and “Blue Monday,” the quintessential ‘80s club jam retrofitted into a widescreen drum-machine epic for a dance floor as big as all outdoors.

Numbers never had it so good.

Your Silent Face
Tutti Frutti
On the High Line
Bizarre Love Triangle
Waiting For the Siren’s Call
The Perfect Kiss

Love Will Tear Us Apart
Blue Monday
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray