A song finishes, a final chord fades. The auditorium is silent for the first time in over an hour. In traditional gigs, this is where that audience applaud wildly hoping for an encore, but tonight you could hear a pin drop. This audience has just had its horizons expanded and it doesn't know how to react. Silence reigns and all is still. If this were a more usual gig, this silence would be nothing short of an insult, but tonight it is testament to the power of what has happened. Fortunately, the orchestra on stage know just how to react to this and they slowly start to deconstruct Love Will Tear Us Apart live on stage. This is a different type of gig, welcome to Joy Division Reworked.
The idea is an unusual one; to radically reimagine Joy Division songs, strip them down to less than their bare bones and build them back up again using an orchestra, a dance music veteran (Scanner) and a lighting whiz kid to create a new show. The idea is a tantalising one, but the reality often fails to live up to such lofty aims, so how did it all play out?
I arrived at the hall a little late and the show had already started (another difference to rock gigs, these things start on time). As I was shown to my seat, the first thing that struck me was how many more people there were than previously; not on stage, that is to be expected with an orchestra, but in the audience. A sold out Liverpool Philharmonic holding more people that I have seen at all my previous Joy Division shows combined. This is my first sight of proof that Joy Division have indeed crossed over in the intervening years and become a major league proposition.
The orchestra play behind a thin, opaque curtain that acts as a very effective screen for projections, but also serves as a very real barrier between the audience and the performers that I think that the later Joy Division and certainly early New Order would approve of. Snatches of lyrics in Ian Curtis' handwriting appear on the screen, complete with crossings out and amendments, which gives a feeling of Curtis being involved in the show. This simple projection feels quite spooky in this context.
Musically, this feels like an improvisation, but the orchestra members turning over their sheet music at the same time indicates that this is all planned, if a sound is heard it is meant to be there, this music is deliberate and written. It is often tricky to identify songs for a while; one song I thought to be Exercise One turned out to be Heart and Soul, about as far from each other as possible, both in style and chronology.
Only a few notes or a snatch of Curtis' disembodied voice give the game away as to what song is being played. A song may be constructed from a brief chord sequence or part of a drum pattern and built on from there. They manage to retain the feel of a song while jettisoning most of the actual music, which is no mean feat when you think about it. I couldn't make out much of Scanner, either on stage or in the music, but some of the songs have an electronic foundation which I took to be his contribution. Curtis' disembodied voice floated in and out of the mix and sounded genuinely haunting, disassociated from the music, not quite with us. This was very affecting, the first time I have heard his voice in a live setting since 1979. I wasn't alone in feeling the emotional impact as the scallyish looking lads in front of me confessed later to being on the verge of unlikely tears hearing it.
The songs blended into each other with no pause and sound washed over the auditorium in great waves. Graphics based on Curtis' famous dance moves played on the screen and the black and white landscape of the Unknown Pleasures sleeve became a mountain range to fly through. I was struck by how many images of theirs have now become so iconic and part of our culture. The abstract shapes copying Curtis' dancing made me realise that this was probably the closest we would ever get to seeing him on stage again.
The second time the last chord of a song finished, following the Love Will Tear Us Apart encore, there was no silence. A huge roar of applause was given to the bowing orchestra as the crowd started to rise to their feet one by one.
The evening could have been too reverential, too in awe of the back catalogue they had to play with. Instead a healthy dose of experimentation and even irreverence was displayed, and I think the spirit of it was something that Joy Division would again approve of. We see ourselves now as we never have seen.
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