On July 8, my wife and I attended the New Order concert at Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. We were running late so we got to the venue in time to hear the intermission Big Ben bells chiming out the warning for patrons to get ourselves and our butts into our seats for the show. We were situated in one of the wings of the dress circle. Unlike the orchestra area of the theatre, there were no ushers to guide us to our seats. What I like about this area of the venue is that it is closer to the stage than many of the rows in the lower orchestra and provides by its size and situation a more intimate vantage point to enjoy a performance.
One caveat of this review is that I am not all too familiar with the discography of the band. Make that two bands. I did not even know they were an offshoot of the defunct Joy Division. My wife filled me in on those minutiae with her big eyes saying “Really?”. Yeah really. We grew up in the eighties and even though she first knew me as a boy who liked to listen to vinyl records, her look is not so surprising to me. It is one of her more recognizable attractions.
It was not long until the house lights dimmed and the synthesized strains of the opening to ‘Elegia’ filled the room. It sounded much like a mix of spaghetti western showdown music between Colonel Mortimer and Indio in ‘For A Few Dollars More’ or Tuco, Angel Eyes, and Blondie in ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’. I don’t know if the ghost of Ennio Morricone was in the house. If he was then he might have been screaming from the wings and not heard. I say filled the room and then some because the sound from the house pa monitors while quite pleasant from the dj onstage prior had now become a cacophony of high pitched bells and reverberating synthesized bass notes many of which bounced off the walls to an echoing effect of high intensity. I was reminded of how unintelligible and disappointing the sound was for Soundgarden at this very place, and even though the build up which went on for a couple of minutes was intriguing as an introduction in itself, it did not bode well for the rest of the evening.
The band entered to a welcoming roar and the members took their positions. There was an acoustic drum kit onstage and beside it a large chinese gong suspended on its own stand facing the audience. A la The Who. Another band member off to the right would later play on a set of electronic drum toms providing that now familiar sheet metal beat and trash can lid smash from their hits. The band launched into ‘Crystal’ with a screen above the stage providing the audience with a video of the song. It made me wonder what to centre my attention on; the video screen or the stage performance because the band was veiled in almost near darkness for much of their set. This disconnect between the band and the audience would permeate the evening. I looked around and apart from the people in the dance pit closest to the stage most were seated. It is this kind of audience ‘participation’ which I really think makes Vancouver such a letdown to attend concerts in oftentimes. An ‘entertain me’ centric town with so many content to tickle their smartphones during the show it makes the term ‘straight to DVD’ apropos. I mean what the hell do you pay your money to come out and see? A huge part of the live experience is the interaction between the audience and the band. Geez, go tap on your devices at the local big time hockey rink if you want that brand of quality entertainment.
Okay enough of the rant. I got up out of my seat and began to dance because this is what I came for. What little I knew about the band was thrown aside, because when it comes to beats and energy it was obvious New Order was going to pump it out LOUD LOUD LOUD. It was kind of like being in LuV a Fair nightclub way back when only larger and this time everybody paid way more than cover to the bouncer to get in. We decided to continue to a stair landing nearest to our folding chairs and resume our gyrations there. The music bounced along and I got to enjoy my time dancing with the lovely creature in front of me and asking “What kind of bird…are you?” like Sam to Suzy in ‘Moonrise Kingdom’. I moved facing her, my back to the stage, and saw our shadows moving along the walls and shifting to the beats and the reflection of myriad lighting effects. I imagined us dancing together in our younger days, the look on her face of nervous embarrassment at my goofy smile while I gazed into her eyes in wonderment; how. Then to now. From that to the shadows on the wall and back to our present movements, similar and yet slower, much like the awkward movements of a first dance, now with the addition of aching joints.
A break in the action and frontman Bernard Sumner thanked Vancouver for coming out to the show, he then apologized for not arriving sooner saying “…it wasn’t our fault!” I am not sure if he was saying this because the demand was not sufficient enough to warrant playing at a venue like QE Theatre, or if he was referring to the value of the Canadian dollar for the past three decades. I say ‘frontman loosely because a lot of the bands’ music is more suited to the nightclub scene then live stage performance. No Roger Daltrey here. A large part of their stage presence is left to the listening and watching the visuals on the screen and the light show. Get it right and you have what could have been a live performance at a previous incarnation of the H.R. MacMillan Planetarium. Anything lacking in either area and you get what happened this night: disjointed unnecessary segues and awkward introductions to different songs, and intriguing visuals which for some reason were placed above the stage off centre and on a screen of a size more suited to a venue like The Centre in Vancouver, or even more encompassing; The Commodore Ballroom. Take for example ‘Your Silent Face’, where the scenes were close shots of city buildings and flashing, blurred, rapidly advancing bluuuue, greeeeeen, yelloooowww and RED lights which conveyed a feeling of constant rapidity in the day and night of a modern city. A bleakness and aloneness was conveyed punctuated by slow frames of text which called our attention to our complacency; that there is a movement to eliminate some unnamed affliction, or injustice and we should be moved to act. It ended with a website to go to: http://www.amfar.org.
I ducked out to get some water. Even though we were still relatively early into the show the bar was closed. Oh yeah it is a Vancouver civic theatre so no shock there. Oh well, my wife found a fountain so we both had our fill before heading back. It also gave my eardrums a break. I could feel them approaching the pain threshold. I quickly checked the merch booth for ear plugs. No such luck. The offerings were very sparse with a couple of t-shirt styles (one for Joy Division), and cds by the opening act held on by clips on the white metal screen fencing. The workers behind the table were speaking casually and what with the wares for sale it was not surprising they only directed ho-hum glances to a potential customer.
The lead up to ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and instant familiarity with the tune got the crowd up for a while. By this time the audience in the balcony section were standing and dancing for the most part. It was good to see. I can’t say much more for the people in the Orchestra section below the majority of which stood around like a tree stand. With ‘True Faith’ we were definitely moving and the house was surfing along in a rare wave of tangible excitement 80’s style. The song was mysterious then and continues to hold up well as a truly iconic tune of the era.
By the time ‘Blue Monday’ rolled around I was getting bored. The visuals of a female left arm and hand slowly walking through tall grass during the golden hour seemed to signal what could have been the aching close of teenage years. The nostalgic goodbye however was more cold water in the face than a wish to return. My hands were over my ears and removing them lent a ‘wow-wow-wow’ sound effect to the proceedings. I wanted to leave but my wife was holding out for one more song. Mr. Sumner looked bored too; he leaned on his mic stand mid song and without an instrument in hand looked out on the crowd and performed a disaffected yawn. I laughed out loud. After all his mentions of “Vancouver” (which were more than a few) and the multiple times “beautiful city” was spewed, it was probably his most sincere moment of the night. As if to underline his teenage-like frustration he muscled in unceremoniously on the keyboardist who after a few seconds appeared to realize the tantrum he was in and stepped away leaving Mr. Sumner to take it out on the instrument. At the very end he held a cacophony of notes to ear shattering spikes. Huh. I guess it was our fault.
New Order’s final song during their anticlimactic encore was the Joy Division standard bearer ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, the song my wife was waiting for. She turned to me and voiced her disappointment. She apologized as if I had been forced to attend for all her anticipation and excitement. Yet despite its short comings the show became a backdrop to the excitement and satisfaction of being with her at a concert she was up to seeing. I got to be a happy participant. As we exited I noticed many young concert goers rubbing their ears. The prophetic words of Prince way back during his Lovesexy tour still ring in mine: “Vancouver you got a long way to go!”
And I thought I was old.