Electro-Pop Pioneers New Order’s “Blue Monday” Kicks Off SXSW Music

ACL Live show brought in former clubgoers and curious newbies alike

New Order performs at ACL Live on March 13 (see photo gallery) (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

With an emphasis on buzz bands and young industry darlings, South by Southwest is usually about discovery.

But for the veterans on the battlefield it can also be about rediscovery. For pioneering electro-pop band New Order, a high-profile appearance at the Festival’s Monday commencement – around which the Manchester group built a short tour of Texas and New Orleans – brought in longtime fans, former clubgoers, and curious newbies alike. New Order spent its Eighties heyday absorbing and recasting dance music trends in their own image, a process that influenced the next several waves of club music, what we now call EDM, over the decades.

Whether you were a young hipster wanting to know what the fuss was about, or an older punter hoping to relive glory days on the dance floor, ACL Live fans were treated to a show by a band that still digs playing their classic material, breaking new ground, and overturning the soil.

New Order (Photo by Isabella Martinez)

Following sets by fellow Mancunians Loose Articles and the Orielles, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham appeared to announce Beyond the Music, a new festival to be held in the city this October, before introducing “the ultimate Manchester band.” Following the curious use of Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold: Vorspiel” as walk-on music, the quintet – original members Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Gillian Gilbert, plus guitarist/keyboardist Phil Cunningham and bassist Tom Chapman – opened the set with 2001’s rockist single “Crystal,” a pretty musclebound choice given the band’s reputation as one of the parents of synth-pop.

Perhaps Sumner and company wanted to remind us that they’re as much a rock band as a dance band, as the following four songs, including 1993’s “Regret,” 1983’s “Age of Consent,” and 2015’s “Academic,” let Sumner and Cunningham roar. Hence the irony of the singer pointing out, “I’ve got a new guitar,” just as the setlist reached 1985’s “Perfect Kiss,” one of the band’s earliest deep dives into what would eventually be called electronica.

At that point the synthetic sounds took prominence, though never erasing the guitars and drum kit entirely. (Kudos to Morris, whose timekeeping rivaled drum machines for accuracy and beat them for vibrancy.) The 2020 single “Be a Rebel” harkened back to the group’s Reagan years heyday, while their 2015 dance floor anthem “Plastic” crossed post-punk with Giorgio Moroder’s electronic coloring.

New Order (Photo by Isabella Martinez)

Buoyed by cheers from the enthusiastic crowd, New Order staple “Bizarre Love Triangle” reasserted the band’s mastery of composing a thumping club banger in disguise as a simple pop song. Or was it the other way around? Regardless, it brought seated audience members to their feet to boogie down like it was 1985, and further hits “True Faith,” “Blue Monday” (the hands-down favorite of the night), and “Temptation” kept them there.

After the briefest of stage exits, Sumner returned and asked, “Are there any Joy Division fans out there?” (Rhapsodic affirmative.) “Good. If there wasn’t, it would be a tragedy.”

That signaled a three song-encore of classics from New Order’s predecessor, starting with the hazy “Atmosphere,” continuing with the burly “Transmission,” and ending with the almost apocalyptically anthemic “Love Will Tears Us Apart,” the song that invented New Order before their members knew it was happening. Both band and throng seemed happy, even gleeful, once the show concluded – Sumner reiterated what a great audience they’d been, and the people filed out with grins on their faces. Though never without a shortage of vintage artists in the roster, SXSW should still remember the impact this New Order showcase had: Seeing a so-called legacy act put on a concert like this one can turn a casual fan into a die-hard.

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SXSW Music 2023, New Order, Joy Division, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert, Tom Chapman

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