New Order and the Pet Shop Boys, two revered English synthpop bands, joined forces for an irresistible double bill, hailed The Unity Tour, which surfaced at Merriweather Post Pavilion outside DC not long ago.
The highly anticipated tour was twice postponed due to complications of touring during the high prevalence of COVID-19 over the past two years. With the rescheduled date landing in the midst of a high season of very good concerts, I wondered if the final show would stand out from the crowd as well.
I need not have wondered. The New Order Mancs showed so much heart and grit and the PSB Londoners brought plenty of brains and style — and the combined power of their twin performances undoubtedly produced the very best concert of the year.
At Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sept. 21, New Order took the stage first. Frontman Bernard Sumner stood before a microphone in the center of the stage to open the show with “Regret,” the single that helped put ’80s stalwarts New Order back on the musical map in 1993. From the very first notes, the song sounded like sweet deliverance, here to elevate the musical conversation and wholly transport our material selves into its remarkable rhythm.
Watch the official music video for “Regret” by New Order on YouTube:
At 66, Barney looked dignified, official. But his voice was as timeless as ever. Part of the transportive magic of New Order was that Benard as frontman could easily wind you back to the early days of the band, formed in 1980 after the dissolution of Joy Division. As a musical icon, Barney stands immutable. The not-so-on-purpose disaffection in his vocal created an ideal blend with the synths and percussion of his bandmates, and he almost seemed to conduct the show from his guitar.
There was no denying that Barney performed from the heart. As the show proceeded, he let loose and lost himself in the music. At the one-third mark, New Order picked up “Your Silent Face,” a wonderfully inviting but also maudlin tune that appeared on the band’s sophomore album, Power, Corruption, and Lies. Sumner paced to the back of the stage and retrieved a melodica for the song’s unforgettable bridge. As he played it, the years seemed to fade away, and you could see a younger man behind Bernard’s spectacles.
Both New Order and the Pet Shop Boys came to town ready to totally knock us out, and New Order deliberately and definitively hit their targets. The band’s triumphant final quarter included titanic new wave/house numbers that still stand above the fray in their genres: “True Faith” from their 1987 career compilation Substance; “Blue Monday,” their early groundbreaking single; and “Temptation,” another giant single that helped to permanently seal New Order’s fate as perenially hip and also decisively poignant.
Watch the official music video for “Temptation” by New Order on YouTube:
For their last song, New Order played “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” highly regarded as the greatest post-punk tune of all time, and certainly the one song (at least) that ensures Joy Division will be forever remembered.
While Barney dominated the show as the face of the band, his longtime bandmates Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris also were a sight and sound for sore eyes and ears. The two set to work methodically with a central focus on their instruments, and their presence imparted a warmth to their highly technical instrumentation. Together, New Order stand as giants, and their music still packs the punchy delirium it has always carried.
Following New Order, the Pet Shop Boys began their part of the concert with “Suburbia,” which hails from the duo’s debut album, Please. PSB apparently allowed “Suburbia” to inspire their show’s primary stage setting, a platform set between two streetlight fixtures that generated the illusion of being on a well-lit, if vaguely futuristic, neighborhood curb. Clad initially in a trenchcoat, PSB frontman Neil Tennant appeared sophisticated and aloof throughout the show, a spirit initially augmented by masks that looked like tuning forks adorning his and Chris’ faces. Neil, however, addressed the audience frankly and directly with enthusiasm, and his pleasure in performing was quite evident.
Watch the official music video for “Suburbia” by Pet Shop Boys on YouTube:
In many ways, the Pet Shop Boys are the polar opposite of New Order. New Order began from another band formed when its core members were quite young. Over the last 30 years, their output has diminished quite a bit from their ’80s heyday, when New Order dominated with consistent record releases. By contrast, the Pet Shop Boys formed after Neil as a journalist reported on the emergent post-punk and new wave scene and gained musical ambitions himself. Since the publication of their first studio album in 1986, the Pet Shops Boys have remained steadily prolific. In the past 10 years, the duo has released three excellent albums, all produced by Stuart Price. From these records, they performed Electric’s “Vocal” and Hotspot’s “Dreamland,” both toward the end of the show on Sept. 21.
Over the course of the concert, Neil and synthesist Chris Lowe consistently returned to their first three albums. After opening with Please’s “Suburbia,” they soon played “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” at which point Neil discarded his tuning fork mask to sing declaratively with power and passion. PSB later excited the large and bustling audience with “West End Girls” in the encore, which saw them in a costume change that suggested their “old-school” appearances — Neil in a business suit and Chris in a tracksuit.
Watch the official music video for “West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys on YouTube:
The band roused revelers with “It’s a Sin” from sophomore album Actually as the last song in the set and amazed all listeners with “Being Boring” from third album Behavior in the encore. Neil’s voice was simply beautiful. He and Chris both sounded great. The raw talent of their performance was cloaked a bit in the theatrical presentation of their show, which actually involved two costume and set changes, but their showmanship and their musicality totally shined through everything else around them. The Pet Shop Boys were nothing less than utterly magnificent.
Together with their unparalleled display of heart and brains, New Order and Pet Shop Boys delivered the best concert of the year, hands down. Indeed, there is no doubt I’ll revisit this show for years to come in my thoughts, and it will continually produce happy memories of seeing two of my favorite bands remaining at the top of their game more than 40 years into their careers. You are synthpop royalty, New Order and Pet Shop Boys, and long may you reign.
Here are some photos of New Order performing at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sept. 21, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Kyle Gustafson.
And here are some photos of Pet Shop Boys performing at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sept. 21, 2022. All pictures again copyright and courtesy of Kyle Gustafson.