Thirty years after Ian Curtis' suicide and Joy Division's subsequent break-up, the band's legacy stillmeans both magic and misery for its three living members.
Most of the magic comes from how their art has been remembered: the Manchester, England-bred group's ominous, stirring songs set the blueprint for morose post-punk, and their thin discography continues to be prized by critics. The fact that Curtis, a 23-year-old enigma of a vocalist, hanged himself as his band was gaining success helped fortify a mythological aura, too. Meanwhile, the misery stems from Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris losing a cohort so early, and Curtis' death then throwing a pall over their remaining careers. New Order, the trio's post-Curtis band, could never possibly reach the same influential heights as their previous project, and if any of them try to revive said project, they enter murky waters with Joy Division loyalists.
In a ballsy move, Joy Division bassist/backing vocalist Hook has masterminded a nine-date American tour revisiting their 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures, and he doesn't even have Sumner or Morris with him. Instead, Hook sings Curtis' parts and is backed by a group called The Light. This dicey proposition brings up a couple of elephant in the room-esque questions: Will hearing these renditions mark a moment of triumph or shame for an audience comprised of people who surely never saw Joy Division play in the first place? (Curtis' suicide preceded their first American tour.) Can Hook justifiably resurrect Unknown Pleasures, or will this exhuming be a cash-in?
Answers to those questions were provided when Hook and The Light launched the American Unknown Pleasures tour at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night. Their opener wasn't a band but rather a strangely disjointed documentary that rode through the back stories of Joy Division and New Order. It made for excellent catch-up fodder for the crowd member attending on a lark, while it was not revelatory for the seasoned listener.
Following that, Hook hit the stage alongside the four-piece Light (which includes Hook's son, Jack Bates, on the bass, too). "Evenin'," said Hook. His brevity symbolized the way he'd keep the crowd interaction to a minimum through the night. Sporting a small fauxhawk, his non-instrumental physical movements were mostly limited to lots of triumphant finger-pointing and the rare drift away from the mic stand. For the first half of the set, he maintained a scowl while singing (perhaps he was trying to physically channel Curtis' gravitas), but his expression loosened up as the band got comfortable.
As a tour repeatedly billed as "Peter Hook Presents Unknown Pleasures," it wholly delivered on the premise.
The New Order track-free set featured note-nailing impressions of Joy Division's "No Love Lost," "Leaders of Men," "Glass," and "Digital," before covering their most famous LP from front to back. All the pleasures you'd expect of Pleasures were present -- the punchy, sumptuous intro of "New Dawn Fades," guitars searing during "Shadowplay," the jagged moves of "She's Lost Control." More fleshed out than the record, even.
Hook couldn't quite mimic Curtis' authoritative vocals, but his calls were crisp and competently matched each song's tone. He particularly savored the big repeated yells that close so many Joy Division songs. They show his animated side just waiting to break out.
The Light worked with the precision of machines, but they didn't have much in the way of memorable stage presence. The only person that let on that he was having fun was the keyboardist stationed at the back. The po-faced approach took away from the feeling that this tour was something special.
Come to think of it, the show itself never produced any surprises or medleys or improvised moments or anything that would indicate that this wasn't the same rigorously rehearsed concert that would be taken to the next city. You can't fault a band for meticulous musicianship, but a little playfulness would spruce up their show.
Things particularly picked up with the show's last five songs, beginning with Hook's wild trilling during "Interzone." It was odd to see a man so content with being stoic before moving his voice maniacally and enjoying it.
As Pleasures' closer "I Remember Nothing" faded out, the band left. When they returned to a stage bathed in red lighting for the encore, it was the best work of the night. "Warsaw" was pulled off brilliantly, and a howling synth line or guitar was added to a song that already sounded anxious and angry. Hook and The Light seemed to be craving this vigor all along.
"Transmission" was feisty, too, which is to be expected, but then the band filled "Love Will Tear Us Apart" with an ecstatic thunder the original never touched. Hook even peppered the song with an awfully rock n' roll "Here we go, one more time!" before its final portion. It was far more of a celebration than a dirge, and it's a shame that that track was the last they'd play as the show had suddenly become really good.
Hook warmly said, "Thank you and good night. God bless you all," before the whole gang left for good, removing any doubt that he should be taking this material on. Appearances from Sumner and Morris would have been nice, yes, but no cash-in would have been so devoted to its source material. Hook didn't try to be Curtis, which was the best path he could take. If you haven't already been convinced of Joy Division's quality, the anti-bells and whistles show won't sway your opinion. But for die-hards, this revival is satisfying manna.
No Love Lost
Leaders of Men
Day of the Lords
New Dawn Fades
She's Lost Control
I Remember Nothing
Love Will Tear Us Apart
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