I sat in a café down the street from Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, counting the guys in Unknown Pleasures T-shirts go past. I’m not above it. I have my own Unknown Pleasures shirt, but I elected not to wear it that evening. I bought mine at a Peter Hook concert last year. I didn’t wear something else to avoid controversy, but because it just seemed so obvious. Not everyone else felt the same way.
These days New Order is more famous for in-fighting between Bernard Sumner and ex-bassist Hook than making new music. The group treads on its rock royalty roots. How often do you get to see members of Joy Division make music? As fans, it’s easy to say, “Get over it,” to stop calling each “twatto” and play some damned music. It makes you want to shake guys like Morrissey. But we’re not in it, we don’t understand the hurt feelings or backstage subterfuge. Hook claims that Sumner stole the New Order name from him. While Hook is playing smaller clubs doing Joy Division and New Order records from front to back, Sumner and OG member Stephen Morris can use the name recognition to pack in the audiences at bigger venue.
My biggest complaint about Peter Hook and the Light is that Hook doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull off the Sumner-led New Order material. His low growl perfectly suits the Ian Curtis material, but sounds off when attempting songs like “Age of Consent” and “Blue Monday.” After seeing Sumner and New Order at the Paramount, I have the same complaint. The show may have been bigger, but Sumner is no longer able (or willing) to pull off Sumner.
Sumner has never been the most dynamic vocalist. In fact, he may have invented the disaffected lead singer affect. But during New Order’s 18 song set, leaning heavy on the band’s old favorites and some Joy Division chestnuts, Sumner’s vocals were completely drowned out by his cohorts. Both times I’ve seen him and the Light, Hooky seemed like he was giving it his all, despite his limitations as a frontman. Hell, he is pumping out 30-song sets this summer. On the other hand, Sumner appeared to be treading on nostalgia and in many cases, the strength of the songs carried the concert and made it a success.
How can you argue with seeing most of the original New Order play songs like “Ceremony,” “Age of Consent” and “Your Silent Face”? The band sounded absolutely great (even if Hooky has accused new bassist Phil Cunnigham of miming over pre-recorded basslines). The crowd dug into “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith,” dancing and singing along with sheer exuberance. It could have been a sweaty night in Ibiza, save Sumner’s performance, which felt almost geriatric.
After finishing the first set with “Blue Monday” and “Temptation,” the band returned for a three-song encore of Joy Division songs. Sumner treated these covers with reverence, pushing us to dance during “Transmission,” upping the dread with “Atmosphere” before ending things with requisite closer “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” And as for all those guys in the Joy Division shirts? Have no fear! Sumner himself sported one.