The two iconic electronic rock acts share a lot of similarities. Rising out of England in the mid-’80s, New Order and Pet Shop Boys shared a fondness for wistful lyrics atop danceable electronic rock grooves and pop vibes.
So yeah, the announcement of their Unity Tour delivered jolts of joy to fans when it arrived at the end of February 2020. And despite being postponed twice, still held a bit of the crackle and pop of an event concert as the first night of Pet Shop Boys and New Order at the Bowl kicked off in Los Angeles on Friday.
The bands have been alternating time slots and on Friday that meant Pet Shop Boys, the duo of singer-songwriter Neil Tennant and synth-and-keyboard player Chris Lowe, played first, opening their set with the melancholy melody of “Suburbia.”
Pet Shop Boys have always paid attention to complementary factors, such as the fashion and design of their performances and the current tour makes clear that hasn’t changed. Both Tennant and Lowe arrived in white lab coat-like jackets and odd geometric face masks that looked something like double-ended tuning forks.
Their initial stage set was minimalist – a microphone stand for Tennant, a keyboard and computer for Lowe, beneath a pair of bright white street lights. The street scene, augmented at times by video images that included trains passing in the night, gave a kind of transitory feel to early highlights such as “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” and “Where the Streets Have No Name / I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” the duo’s mashup of hits originally done by U2 and Frankie Valli.
Pet Shop Boys remain an oddly charismatic duo. Oddly, because if Chris Lowe changed his Buster Keaton-esque expression once on Friday I didn’t see it. Charismatic, because Tennant looks more like a British banker than ever but his introspective lyrics and pleading vocals remain irresistible.
The production expanded for the middle of the set, with Lowe and Tennant walking off stage for a wardrobe change – Tennant returning in a black tuxedo with wide white lapels and a soft white fez-like hat – as the video screens rose to reveal the rest of the band
Here, with a broader sonic palette, highlights included songs such as “Left To My Own Devices,” “Love Comes Quickly,” and the duo’s popular cover of “You Were Always On My Mind.” a standard at this point though perhaps best known for the Willie Nelson or Elvis Presley versions.
The main set wrapped up with dance bangers such as “It’s Alright,” a cover Tennant dedicated “to all the old ravers out there, and I think there’s quite a lot of you,” and ultimately “It’s a Sin,” one of their best-loved numbers and one like many before it that had the Bowl crowd on their feet and dancing.
The encore returned Lowe and Tennant to the street light minimalism for “West End Girls” – “The song that first brought us to Los Angeles in 1986,” Tennant said, noting that it was Richard Blade on KROQ who introduced the tune and the twosome to the region. The soft dance glide of “Being Boring” then wrapped up the Pet Shop Boys’ first-ever show at the Bowl.
Star DJ Paul Oakenfold played before Pet Shop Boys and during the break between their set and New Order, the screens and spotlights during his crowd-pleasing sets featuring the blue-and-gold colors of the Ukrainian flag. (Pet Shop Boys also slipped a little Ukrainian solidarity into their set, changing the lyrics to “West End Girls” to sing “from Mariupol to Kyiv Station,” at one point.)
New Order then arrived on stage for a more traditional rock performance. Fashion choices saw singer-guitarist Bernard Sumner in T-shirt and jeans, drummer Stephen Morris in a NASA T-shirt, and synth-and-keyboard player Gillian Gilbert in a modest dress that said school teacher more than rock star.
But their set delivered almost as many thrills as Pet Shop Boys, with downbeat songs early in the show such as “Regret” and “Age Of Consent” and “Ceremony” slowly building a bond with the fans that paid off once the energy of the music started to take off.
Sumner’s vocals might have been a little shaky at the outset but once warmed up – around the time the band played “Ceremony” and the always lovely “Your Silent Face” – things settled in beautifully.
The second half of the main set saw fans finally reach the level of excitement they’d had for most of Pet Shop Boys. “Bizarre Love Triangle” is always rapturously received and for good reason, it’s one of New Order’s most exquisitely lovely songs.
“True Faith,” “Blue Monday,” and “Temptation,” the final three songs before the encore, only built on that joyful, cathartic sense of release that the best of New Order delivers. Fans sang along loudly to these three, with many dancing in the aisles as Sumner soloed on guitar to the finish of “Temptation.”
The band has typically been playing a pair of Joy Division songs for its encore – Sumner and Morris were part of that band with bassist Peter Hook and singer Ian Curtis, and after Curtis’s death, the surviving three formed New Order with Gilbert.
At the Bowl on Friday, though, Sumner said they’d decided to do something different and cover the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” “We’ve never played it before – please bear with us,” he said, adding that it had seemed a good song to cover given the venue they were playing.
He needn’t worry – New Order’s fast, rocking version was terrific – which led to the show’s traditional finale, the Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a final bit of hopeful melancholy to finish off this long-awaited night.
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