New Order frontman Bernard Sumner surveys the 35,000-strong crowd at Heaton Park approvingly from under his spectacles, before launching into their set opener ‘Regret’. “OK, let’s have a party,” commands the 65-year-old, to his rapturous disciples that need little encouragement. “It’s been a terrible year-and-a-half. Let’s make up for it starting tonight.”
If there’s any band that’s adept at emerging from traumatic events with a defiant optimism, it’s New Order, who survived the suicide of their Joy Division singer Ian Curtis to become forward-facing disco existentialists that reshaped music – and Manchester – in their own futuristic image. Held the same weekend in which they’ll take to the Parklife main stage (the festival will also host the likes of Dave and Megan Thee Stallion), this heroic homecoming is the biggest UK audience they’ve ever played to.
The brilliantly up-for-it writhing mass are an all-welcome cross-section of swivel-eyed mums and dads (thawing out the kind of joyously uninhibited ‘80s/’90s dance moves that make Michael Gove in the club look like the Bolshoi Ballet) and kids ticking a legacy band off their bucket (hat) list. “Isn’t it great to be alive again?”, affirms Sumner again, who himself contracted coronavirus last year, before the bass of ‘Age Of Consent’ starts to rumble.
As lasers and strobes fan out into the throng, New Order are now a souped-up monster truck of a band who – despite this essentially working as a greatest hits set – avoid falling into a heritage cul-de-sac by remixing and refreshing their material into box-fresh iterations. Before a triumphant triumvirate of ‘Sub-culture’, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘Vanishing Point’, Sumner notes that, save for their Halifax gig a couple of nights before, it’s the first time they’ve played in 18 months.
“It’s a little bit weird, I’m sure it’s weird for everyone here as well, but you know, fuck COVID – we can beat it”. As well as that statement acting as a battle cry, there’s a sense that the pandemic has heightened their back catalogue’s bittersweet euphoria. Like all the best pop acts, New Order are the masters at finding the sweet-spot between melancholia/celebratory, heartbreak and redemption.
A spaced-out extended ‘Plastic’ – from their 2015 Midas touch-rediscovering album ‘Music Technique’, their first sans influential bassist Peter Hook, who is replaced here with a comparatively understated Tom Chapman – is dedicated to the late legend Denise Johnson, who provided backing vocals on it and died suddenly last year. “We’ll say a little prayer for her,” says Sumner. The song shimmers with its Giorgio Moroder ‘I Feel Love’-recalling pulse. Last year’s standalone single ‘Be A Rebel’, played for only the second time tonight, felt slightly throwaway on record but gains teeth live, and is transformed into an incandescent banger that sounds like latter-period Pet Shop Boys; a band Sumner’s other group Electronic collaborated with and with whom New Order were meant to tour before COVID intervened.
They’re all dressed in black (save for powerful motorik drummer Stephen Morris clad in a NASA T-shirt); one criticism frequently levelled at New Order live is that they aren’t overburdened with stage presence, but tonight is as much about the communal catharsis as it is the band. Sumner’s fragile vocal has always provided the humanity in New Order’s slick machine; tonight, sometimes his singing is barely in the same postcode as the melody, but the audience drown him out anyway by bellowing every word.
They ransack from a peerless, storied back-catalogue – the influence of which can be heard in the DNA of sterling support acts Working Men’s Club and Hot Chip. It would take a granite heart not to be swept along by the euphoria that greets stone-cold classics ‘True Faith’ and ‘Temptation’. The crowd scream each of Gillian Gilbert’s synth stabs back at her, while a sea of ecstatically-punched fists turns ‘Blue Monday’ into a kind of tub-thumping techno. “Never mind tiring me out,” says Sumner, surveying the chaos. “We’re tiring the audience out!”.
For the encore, they return to their Joy Division roots – the face of Ian Curtis looking behind them – with ‘Decades’ and ‘Transmission’, while a transcendent, unifying sing-a-long of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is so loud, it could probably be heard half an hour away in Broughton, where Sumner grew up. Each word is invested with extra meaning by fans who, as per his instructions, are making up for lost time.
New Order played:
‘Age of Consent’
‘Your Silent Face’
‘The Perfect Kiss’
‘Be a Rebel’
‘Guilt Is a Useless Emotion’
‘Bizarre Love Triangle’
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’