New Order at the Santa Barbara Bowl
Johnny Marr Kicked Off the ’80s Revival on April 18
It is spring, after all, and that means it’s time for renewal. But fans at the New Order concert got more than they might have even anticipated from the first S.B. Bowl concert of the season, which already read like a connoisseur’s idea of 1980s revival: Johnny Marr, who cofounded the legendary Smiths, opening for New Order, the band that rose from the ashes of the short-lived but unforgettable Joy Division. Even more than the showcasing of two still-vital survivors, though, Thursday’s show offered remakes of the oldies that were more like actual resurrections: new life to musical ideas once presumed dead.
The first rebirthing came pretty early. Opener Marr (who rock-and-roll know-it-alls already consider the second coming) is in the midst of something critics have called more than a comeback, and he proved it by kicking in with a new tune, “The Right Thing Right.” The song stems from Marr’s recent album, his first solo work ever, though his alternately screaming and lyrical guitar has spent the last two decades girding up acts as different as The Pretenders and Modest Mouse. (He also looks 10 years younger than he did back alongside either act.) But it was his second song that set the mood for the evening: “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before,” a lesser boom from The Smith’s canon, but enough to tip off the audience that there might be more to come. The 10-song set was pure delight, whether drawn from present or past, though the best blasts were mostly the new stuff, like “The Messenger,” “New Town Velocity,” and “Generate! Generate!,” songs strong enough to prove the know-it-alls right. The small crowd agreed until the electrifying beat and slide-guitar opening of “How Soon Is Now” rang out and brought everybody to their feet. Fifteen years ago, it was the party anthem of this town’s youth. Today it seems like a manifesto remembered.
And that was just the opener. The real moments of beauty came from New Order, whose 14-song set moved from good to astonishing, particularly in the five-song crescendo beginning with “True Faith,” followed by “586,” and, three increasingly psychedelic songs later (the light show sent blue lights stabbing up to where airplanes roam), ending with “Temptation.” But this punchy, surprisingly guitar-dominated set of songs was also punctuated early on when frontman Bernard Sumner asked the crowd if anyone here was a Joy Division fan, and then played “Isolation” over the roars. That might have been enough — the band has resisted its own past for decades — but the entire encore consisted of Ian Curtis masterpieces: “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” A book might one day be written about why The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” made the Reagan/Thatcher era somehow bearable by evoking awful, beautiful insights on alienation and need. I’m just grateful I saw and heard those paining insights return to comfort us one more time.