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New Order has teamed up with visual arts polymath Liam Gillick and their occasional collaborator Joe Duddell to create So it original commission for the Manchester International Festival, in the poignant space of Stage 1 of the Old Granada Studios.

This is where Factory records owner Tony Wilson presented a weekly music show of the same title.  This is where Joy Division gave their first television performance in 1978.  And this is where New Order has chosen to soak themselves in their own history.  Dave Haslam, a former Hacienda DJ, even provides the arrival soundscape to make sure the nod to the past is firmly registered.

The stated aim of the show is a “deconstructing, rethinking and rebuilding” of material from their whole career in an “immersive environment” that “reacts dynamically to the music”.  If that means they’ll be some remixes of old tracks and good lighting, then job done.  The pretension of the MIF catalogue copy does invite expectations of something more grandiose, but this is basically just a good gig in a well-chosen space.

Picture by Jon Super for MIF Manchester Internationsal Festival.

Lead singer Bernard Sumner’s voice seems to take a track or two to warm up, but then he is back to being the most emotionally expressive nasal deadpan known to a microphone.  There are a few technical fails, but these are quickly rebooted and somehow add to the intimacy of the deliberately small venue.  The specially constructed stage features twelve illuminated squares, each housing a student from the RNCM who collectively form a synth orchestra under the expert conducting of Joe Duddell.  They do look a bit like a series of cramped study bedrooms, a similarity heightened by a moveable shutter blind that covers each square.

The set list for the night is a great balance between newer material, rarely performed back catalogue and a few new takes on seminal hits, though some of the biggest hits are eschewed.  Perhaps the only misfire is the encore choices which are definitely not the material that is likely to leave people on a high, quite the reverse.

Stage 1 of the Old Granada Studios is a venue redolent with wider meaning and resonance.  At its height, in the 1980s, Granada was the production home to national television treasures with colossal viewing figures unimaginable today.  That same decade, New Order were at the peak of their powers,asserting a genre-defining global influence.  But Manchester, like New Order, is not misty-eyed about nostalgia.  The Hacienda was knocked down to make way for flats aimed at young professionals.  The same ill-judged fate now awaits the Old Granada Studios.  The choice of venue is as much a part of the performance as anything that happens during the show.  New Order &Gillick are staging a complex, contradictory relationship with the past that treasures it momentarily, then dashes it to pieces and dances in the rubble.

Picture by Jon Super for MIF Manchester Internationsal Festival.

As you leave the venue, the small building by the entrance that used to house the café for Coronation Street tours, now houses the marketing suite for the yet to be built luxury apartments of the invented neighbourhood of St Johns.  The experience of this must be deliberate and is more plaintive in tone than celebratory, almost as if the siting of this gig has turned the band into ghosts haunting themselves.

As a New Order gig, this is a hugely satisfying outing.   The band are confident with exploring new approaches to their back catalogue that are exciting and revitalising but also familiar enough to be rich with nostalgic pleasure.  It is hard, however, despite the clever post-modern sensibilities of the choice of venue, to see it as anything much more than that.

Runs until 15 July 2017

Words by Stephen M Hornby

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