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New Order/Pet Shop Boys in Seattle

New Order/Pet Shop Boys in Seattle
October 17, 2022 04:05PM
These two bands filled up Climate Pledge Arena (the recently renovated & renamed Key Arena) last Friday night. And it wasn't just the grey-haired '80s faithful, like my wife and myself, who paid to see these two bands. From everything I've audited over the past few weeks, these two acts have sustained their place in popular culture. I mean, New Order's songs remain near & dear to our hearts; we both can remember where we were the first time we heard "Ceremony," "Temptation," "Age of Consent," "Blue Monday," "Bizarre Love Triangle" and "Regret." As for the Pet Shop Boys, well, the first time we heard "West End Girls," we both knew that it'd be a huge hit. But who thought both bands would still be around, capturing the public's interest, 35 years or more later? Yet over the past few weeks, when I mentioned this upcoming show to anyone, their eyes got big and they got really enthusiastic. I'm not talking strictly about older people, and I'm not talking about people saying, "What? They're still around?" No, these were twenty-somethings who knew the bands, knew their songs, and were genuinely interested to know more about the upcoming show.

The Pet Shop Boys appeared first. Tennant and Lowe were backed up by three musicians, all dressed in matching glittery multi-color outfits with long fringe sleeves and short skirts. (The girl in the band wore a skirt too.) Neil and Chris performed most of the songs in front of a video scrim, which could be lifted to show the band behind them. They played the first two numbers standing stock still, wearing trench coats along with rather peculiar chrome fixtures that looked like a capital H over their faces. Those accessories mercifully came off, although Chris kept his shades on all night. Neil was in good voice, and the songs certainly hold up well ... but overall, we couldn't help chuckling about the artifice of it all. That's more of a reflection of our taste, though, than the band's presentation.

Can You Forgive Her?
Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)
Where the Streets Have No Name/Can't Take My Eyes Off of You
I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Anymore
So Hard
Left to My Own Devices
Domino Dancing
Love Comes Quickly
Losing My Mind
You Were Always on My Mind
It's Alright
It's a Sin
West End Girls
Being Boring

There was no artifice in New Order's presentation at all. The band dressed down, in a blue flowered dress for Gillian Gilbert and black t-shirts and jeans for all four male musicians onstage -- true punks (or post-punks) at heart. The three original members all show their age, and make no effort to downplay it. Bernard Sumner shows the strain at the edges of his voice, too. And no scrim came down to conceal the band from the fans. The videos behind the band were gorgeous; if they weren't Anton Corbijn's work, then they were done by someone who's studied Anton's style, for sure. And there was no faulting the song selection. By the time New Order finished their encore, I could barely remember having seen the Pet Shop Boys.

Age of Consent
Your Silent Face
The Perfect Kiss
Bizarre Love Triangle
Vanishing Point
True Faith
Blue Monday
Love Will Tear Us Apart

Before each band, DJ Paul Oakenfold did a short set to warm up the crowd. It was enjoyable enough to hear, and I'm certainly not gonna sit here and sneer that he's not a "real musician." I know it takes time and effort and care to put together electronic tracks, let alone good ones. But that doesn't mean it's all that interesting to watch someone do it, even if you do want to dance. And for all the groove factor in Paul's sets, he drew the biggest cheers from the crowd when he played "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I don't mean that he incorporated Nirvana's riffs into an EDM setting; I mean, he cued up the renowned Nirvana song and just let it play. Chalk it up to the Seattle faithful, perhaps; for all I know, Oakenfold tosses a local favorite to the audience in every town.
Re: New Order/Pet Shop Boys in Seattle
October 18, 2022 02:13PM
I saw this show in Columbia, MD, outside of DC. I was still working on a writeup, but I loved the set — although I was there more for PSB than New Order! And in the show I saw, which was outdoors, PSB were the headliners versus NO. I will share my notes when I finish them, but one Paul Oakenfold joke to share: My friend described his DJ set as the "Red Lobster cheddar biscuits of EDM," starchy, empty, crowd-pleasing calories. It seemed apt.
Re: New Order/Pet Shop Boys in Seattle
October 18, 2022 02:26PM
I saw this show in Chicago a couple weeks ago. Not sure who thought a show at an outdoor amphitheater on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan on the last day of September was a swell idea, but I was bundled up enough that the piercing wind didn't bother me overmuch, and the Chicago skyline spread out behind the stage made for a pretty spectacular backdrop.

Sumner claimed he had a cold, but since he's never been a vocalist of great renown I don't know how much worse his frankly awful vocals were than normal. Often during the show he'd put down his guitar and go to vocals only, which seemed to me to be the exact inverse of what that equation should be. So that took a bit of the bloom off New Order's rose, but the excellence of the band more than made up for it.

Pet Shop Boys were generally excellent. There were a couple of Chicago meatheads sitting behind us who were really into them, which was amusing because they were literally the stereotypical types of lunkheads you'd expect to see yelling "FREEBIRRRRRDDDDDDDDDD!" at a Skynyrd show, so their enthusiasm for the Pet Shop Boys seemed pretty incongruous.

Paul Oakenfold honestly seemed like a waste of a billing. There was nothing about either of his sets that suggested "celebrated DJ" - anyone with a cursory knowledge of popular dance music in the ladt couple of decades could've put together a similar set - Happy Mondays "Step On," Everything But the Girl "Missing" - no surprising deep cuts, no adventurous cross-fading. Pretty much the greatest hits of 80s & 90s dance music assembled as a playlist. He didn't play any Haddaway, but it would've fit right in.
Re: New Order/Pet Shop Boys in Seattle
October 18, 2022 03:14PM
Somebody sitting in front of me did yell "Free Bird!" during Oakenfold's first set. It was dark, though, so I couldn't say whether he looked like a "lunkhead." But upon hearing it, my wife leaned toward me and commented, "For once, I approve of that."
Re: New Order/Pet Shop Boys in Seattle
February 18, 2023 03:14PM
I finally finished my September review.

(Back from September)

New Order and Pet Shop Boys
Merriweather Post Pavilion, September 21, 2022

My relationship with the 1980s roots of alternative dance music are decidedly mixed. Depeche Mode meant little to me, and I didn’t care for the Smiths, nor the Cure, nor Joy Division, among the gloomy British chart-toppers whose music continues to be shared in club nights in 2020s. So I got into New Order only in a peripheral way, far after the band’s heyday. The thing about New Order’s singles is that they often sounded great, and I know they ruled in the dance clubs, but on closer listening frequently seemed lamentably shallow, especially Bernard Sumner’s earnestly untrained singing and lyrics. I know how much people loved Power, Corruption, and Lies, but I also know how much people loved Joy Division – and I’ll just say I like New Order more, but it’s not core listening.

Pet Shop Boys, however, are a different story. I loved many of the band’s singles compiled in the exorbitantly overstuffed Discography greatest hits, and the Very album of 1993 still stands as a high-water mark of Neil Tennant’s compositional craft, arch social commentary, and thumping dance beats. (It’s also one of the best pieces of 1990s design work, with the famous orange LEGO-styled CD case.) And in the course of their staggeringly deep discography, Tennant and Chris Lowe have been recognized as some of Britain’s most successful songwriters of the past forty years, as well as thoughtful commentators and elder statesmen of a British gay culture that has survived closethood, repression, AIDS, and ambivalent acceptance. 

The bands have a long overlapping history, including the ingenious late 80s-early 90s dance-pop ensemble Electronic, whose singles like “Getting Away With It,” (composition by Bernard Sumner, vocals by Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, guitars by the Smiths’ Johnny Marr) showed how guitar rock, dance rhythms, and pop compositions could hit the sweet spot for a variety of listeners. So it was not really a surprise when in early 2020 PSB and New Order announced plans for a grand Unity Tour through North America, but we all know what happened next. A grand 24 months later, following a pandemic that somehow didn’t kill any of these now-aging stars, I joined 19,000-some GenX and Boomers at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on a superb autumn evening in the soulless suburbia of Columbia, Maryland.

While Paul Oakenfold spun ridiculous earworms and familiar favorites from the pop, country, and dance scenes before and between the sets (my friend called his DJing the Red Lobster cheddar biscuits of electronic music: starchy, crowd-pleasant empty calories), I found my way to the 9:30 Club tent for my free birthday cupcake — a tradition I had greatly missed during the pandemic.

The Merriweather Post Pavilion is a cavernous natural bowl in which an amphitheater was carved out in the late 1960s, initially for the National Symphony Orchestra, surrounded by a modicum of protected woodland. Weirdly, I’ve never been there because of my innate suspicion of suburban sheds and because I hate driving on a weeknight. But a shocking number of neighbors were heading out on a Wednesday night, and I continued bumping into familiar faces as I navigated the vast arena.

New Order did a set that was admirable in its directness but seemed to fall short in the context of the large shed. The guitars sounded great, but the years have not been kind to Bernard Sumner’s vocal prowess — and lyrics have never been the strong suit for New Order in the first place.

In addition to Sumner on lead vocals and guitar, the band consisted of Gilian Gilbert (keyboards, guitar), Phil Cunningham (guitar, keyboards), Tom Chapman (bass), and Stephen Morris (drums). I don’t follow New Wave intra-band dynamics, but of course I was aware that Peter Hook’s bass was a notable omission since his contributions were among the band’s most significant innovations.

Of course, in a hits-focused show, there were unending familiar melodies, with “Regret,” “The Perfect Kiss,” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” generating screams of approval. I actually never found “Blue Monday” that great a song, and the sparseness of the stage show and video projections left the song undefended, although it was of course much loved by the audience. New Order didn’t skimp on new material including its recent “Be A Rebel” single, which came into the world during the depth of the pandemic, and Sumner did a few tracks that were more somber in tone, like “Your Silent Face.” “True Faith” was a stomping highlight. It was a lengthy set considering that New Order were technically the opening band in the co-headlining tour, but the band skimped some beloved material like “Love Vigilantes,” perhaps deemed as unappealing to a partygoing outdoor crowd. Inevitably, the show concluded with a Joy Division tribute with “Love With Tear Us Apart” and Joy Division Forever graphics on the screen.

Some of my friends were in attendance specifically for New Order. While I was happy to have seen them once, I doubt I will make an effort to see them again, especially given the diminution in Bernard Sumner’s singing and the absence of Peter Hook, whose bass playing defined New Order for so many years.

The same cannot be said of the tremendously entertaining and generous set from Pet Shop Boys, which was a monument of pop savvy and showmanship from Neil Tennant with the poe-faced Chris Lowe on keyboards. For a band that basically does nothing on stage other than play programmed keyboards and sing, Pet Shop Boys were remarkably engaging; between Tennant’s circus-ringmaster patter and the undying hooks of the band’s biggest hooks, it was a nonstop entertainment. Even in a venue as large as Merriweather Post, mediated by giant screens and amplifiers to reach the cheap lawn seats in the back, Tennant’s sense of stagecraft conveyed the eagerness to entertain the audience.

From the outset, a coy “Suburbia” with the howling dogs catering to the undeniably suburban setting, there were hits after hits after hits. After more than forty years of writing and recording, there are few ensembles with as deep a catalogue of crowd-pleasing, deeply ironic songcraft as Tennant and Lowe. The duo hopscotched from familiar chart-toppers from the 1980s to some of the highlights from Very and more recent albums, keeping the energy level high even when the songs were less familiar, and never letting the fans’ attention flag. Tennant toyed with lyrical references from past hits in his florid introduction to a unified Pet Shop Boys cinematic universe of betrayal and attraction, glamorous parties and squalid slums, and pointed social commentary. Although Pet Shop Boys are not a political band by most definitions, Tennant didn’t shy away from periodic allusions to current affairs, including flying the Ukrainian flag on the digital screens and throwing in a reference to Mariupol in “West End Girls.” But it was mostly effortlessly effective pop music including their covers of U2 (“Where the Streets Have No Name”), Elvis/Willie Nelson (“You Were Always On My Mind”), Sondheim (“Losing My Mind”), and their own indelible hits like “Rent,” “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” and “Domino Dancing,” which may be my single favorite Pet Shop Boys tune.

After almost two and a half hours of PSB music — following the New Order set, mind you! — the band closed with “Being Boring,” their elegiac theme song that connects the PSB artistic threads from flappers in the 1920s, to the aesthetes and punks of the 1970s, to AIDS casualties of the 1990s. And the crowd slowly dispersed to the parking garages and suburban sprawl of the greater Washington metropolitan area.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/18/2023 03:17PM by zwirnm.
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