For fans of synthpop, Pet Shop Boys and New Order‘s Unity Tour is a dream come true, with two of the most innovative groups of the last 40 years joining forces for a highly pleasurable, often dazzling night of classics of the form. Originally set for 2020, the tour finally got underway this week and hit Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Friday night, the first of two NYC shows they’ll play.
The groups are alternating who plays first or second, depending on the market, but the setlists and set-lengths have been pretty much the same regardless which position they’re in. At Barclays, Pet Shop Boys were first up and gave a master class on how to do an arena/pavillion show. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe took us on a nonstop tour through their discography (and videography), with every element of the show considered for maximum wow. It played almost like a jukebox musical, starring themselves and minus any need for plot. Just the hits.
Things started small with two streetlight lamp posts set in front of a mesh projection screen, looking like they were playing a parking garage. Orchestral overture music blared, the strings and horns turned into rolling synthesizers, with bright lights blasting the crowd in time with dramatic drum hits while a voice intoned lyrics from “Love Comes Quickly.” The screen raised long enough for Tennant and Lowe to walk out in white trench coats, wearing tall metalic masks, to the sounds of their 1986 single “Suburbia.”
After “Can You Forgive Her,” Tennant’s mask came off and they played early hit “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money).” Tennant then greeted the crowd, hanging off the lamp post and cannily laying out the rest of the show in the guise of an intro for the next song: “We’re going to go on a journey, through music and memories, where West End Girls dance dominos with boys from New York City; where Che Guevara and Debussy are easily led …but make it so hard; where being boring is a sin and music plays forever… and the streets have no names.”
Speaking of, Pet Shop Boys are just as clever with their covers as they are with the originals: they mix U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Names” with Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” and turn “You Were Always on My Mind” and Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” into jubilant Eurodisco, all of which were highlights of the night.
A third of the way into their set, that video screen raised to reveal their backing band and even bigger LED screens, and from there things went gloriously cinematic, songs flowing into one another making for a seamless (early) night of dancing that also allowed Tennant and Lowe time for a few costume changes. It was pure, absolutely fabulous spectacle that could play Vegas or headline an EDM festival.
The set crescendoed with “Vocal” and “It’s A Sin,” an audio/video/emotional overload in the best way. Knowing the ceiling had just been hit, Pet Shop Boys lowered the temperature just a bit, and the streetlight set came back for a finale of “West End Girls,” with it’s banging cowbell and bloopy synths, and then the sleek, sophisticated “Being Boring” to close out their amazing set. “Go West” would’ve been nice, but there’s really no knocking a knockout performance like this.
It would be hard for any band to follow Pet Shop Boys set, but New Order have always done it their way and weren’t even trying to compete. That said, they’ve really upped their visual game for the Unity Tour, with fantastic projections that play off their iconic album and single art as well as their music videos. And like Pet Shop Boys, they’ve got classics for days and their set most mostly loaded with them. An instrumental of Republic‘s “Times Change” — matched with vintage footage of early-’80s New York — was a classy intro, after which they took the stage and frontman Bernard Sumner hit the chords of their 1992 hit “Regret.” Great start.
New Order’s best songs combine electronics with traditional guitar-bass-drum rock, and few bands can do as much with two or three chords. The most transcendent moments Friday night were when they jammed out on those: their debut single “Ceremony,” and Power, Corruption and Lies’ joyous “Age of Consent” and magisterial “Your Silent Face.” The melding of guitar lines, with their signature melodic bass, oceanic synths and Stephen Morris’ still-perfect drumming still achieve pure bliss. And “Temptation,” which closed out their main set, could’ve gone on forever as far as I’m concerned
Bernard Sumner was in good spirits, laughing off a flubbed start to “Ceremony,” greeting the crowd with “Sorry we’re two years late,” and joking about how when they came to NYC for their first ever shows and had all their gear stolen. “If anybody sees our gear, please get in touch!”
The band’s more overt synthpop side was also on display, as we got “The Perfect Kiss,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and “True Faith” — all of which had the whole of Barclays singing along — and of course “Blue Monday” that may be overplayed but those kick drums and electro handclaps still deliver. Some time was paid to their more recent material, too, with the disco-y “Plastic” and “Tutti Frutti” from 2015’s Music Complete. I think the set could’ve lost one of those, along with Waiting for the Sirens Call’s “Guilt Is a Useless Emotion” which may have been nominated for a Grammy but had a lot of folks heading for a bathroom break. In their place, perhaps “Love Vigilantes,” “Thieves Like Us,” or anything from Technique.
I also think that New Order have enough great songs of their own to not dip into Joy Division’s catalogue (I realize I am in the minority on this), but it’s also hard to argue with “Transmission” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which closed the show and was the most unifying moment of the night.
Opening the proceedings and DJing between sets on the Unity Tour is Paul Oakenfold who was a frequent spinner at New Order’s Manchester club, The Hacienda, and Friday night kept the crowd entertained with alt-dance hits from the ’80s and early-’90s. His set before New Order went heavy on Manchester and rave, and I wonder when he played Happy Mondays’ “Step On,” how many people in the crowd knew he produced that song.
One note: It seems like a giant missed opportunity for Sumner and Tennant to not have tried to work up a version of Electronic’s “Getting Away With It” for this tour. It would make a great transition between sets.
The Unity Tour hits Philly on Sunday and then returns to NYC to play Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (9/28) with the order flipped from Barclays, New Order playing first and Pet Shop Boys closing the night. That’s the much more logical flow: while New Order are one of my all-time favorite bands, they really should not play after Pet Shop Boys.
Check out Pet Shop Boys and New Order’s Barclays Center setlists, along with fan-shot video from the show, below.
SETLIST: Pet Shop Boys @ Barclays Center 9/23/2022
Can You Forgive Her?
Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)
Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)
I Don’t Know What You Want but I Can’t Give It Any More
Left to My Own Devices
Love Comes Quickly
Losing My Mind
You Were Always on My Mind
It’s a Sin
West End Girls
SETLIST: New Order @ Barclays Center 9/23/2022
Age of Consent
Your Silent Face
The Perfect Kiss
Guilt Is a Useless Emotion
Bizarre Love Triangle
Love Will Tear Us Apart