Holy Ghost! and New Order @ Bank of America Pavilion 7.31.13
by Ben Stas (English/Journalism), published August 9th 2013
photos by Ben Stas
In our modern musical lexicon, we associate the term “dance music” with images of DJs and laptops before we think of traditional bands and instruments. With EDM now all the rage, and untold numbers of one-man electronic acts flooding our collective consciousness, a flesh-and-blood band playing music that’s both electronic and danceable feels increasingly rare. Perhaps that’s part of what made last Wednesday’s show at Boston’s Bank of America Pavilion feel special. Britain’s legendary New Order and rising Brooklynites Holy Ghost! showcased both the past and present of smart, punchy alt-dance music on the warm final night of July.
Five minutes listening to Holy Ghost! and it’s no surprise that they’re labelmates to LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and The Juan Maclean on DFA Records. The band’s sound is rooted in the New Wave and disco influences common to much of the DFA roster, but with a certain textural spin that carves out their own niche. Alex Frankel’s soulful vocals play a large part in that, but as a live band, Holy Ghost! is very much a team effort. The group is six members in total, including co-founders Frankel and drummer Nick Millhiser. The band’s impressive collection of gear felt like an integral part of their presence as well, sometimes dwarfing the musicians themselves behind stacks of keyboards, drum kits and analog synthesizers.
Holy Ghost! hauled a more elaborate and extensive setup on stage than your average band, and especially your average opener, but it was hardly all for show. Each song bounded forth with a percussive force that was both commanding and nuanced, weaving various combinations of electric guitars, bass and keys into a drum-and-sequencer backbone. One gets the sense that Holy Ghost! take even the subtlest elements of their sound seriously, and they accordingly balance the base elements of dance music that get people moving with a depth of sonic craftsmanship that makes them worthy of closer attention.
That balance makes bands like Holy Ghost! and their DFA brethren the spiritual successors, in some sense, to New Order’s pioneering fusion of post-punk and synth-pop. Fitting, then, that they opened this run of North American dates for the band.
It’s been eight years since New Order released a proper studio album, and they’ve seen more publicity in recent years for infighting and the departure of founding bassist Peter Hook than for any actual music. Since rising from the ashes of Joy Division in 1980, however, New Order have proven themselves an influential, essential band many times over. Breakups, creative dry spells and lineup changes have never chipped away at their legendary status, though they may have left many fans wondering what exactly they would sound like on stage in 2013.
It came as something of a relief, then, that they actually sounded quite good. The “greatest hits” nature of the set left no doubt that this current round of touring was an affair based largely in nostalgia, but the current New Order lineup successfully kept the band’s songbook sounding vital. Peter Hook’s distinctive bass playing was missed, but replacement Tom Chapman did a competent and enthusiastic job filling in. Frontman and founding member Bernard Sumner came across as genuinely excited to be playing songs that his audience clearly loves, and New Order has no shortage of those. From “Ceremony” to “Age of Consent” to “Blue Monday,” with stops at various other career highlights in between, the band played precisely what people wanted to hear.
The mood in the air was decidedly celebratory, reinforced by the dancing masses and the ever-shifting multicolor light show. New Order songs are not necessarily cheerful, per se, but in the context of an outdoor summertime show, they can certainly feel that way. The Joy Division tracks that the band worked into the setlist were what brought the night’s few subdued moments. It was difficult to imagine Ian Curtis on that stage as the band performed his songs, especially in light of the sometimes truly regrettable video accompaniment, but I’ll still admit that hearing the distinctive opening guitar chime of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” sent a chill down my spine.
Slight shades of awkwardness aside, New Order can still put on a satisfying show. They deftly executed the blend of synthesizers and traditional rock instruments that they helped pioneer, with a setlist including most every song you’d want to hear. Bringing Holy Ghost! along for the ride wisely rounded out the evening. Openers often fade into the background, especially in larger venues like the Pavilion, but Holy Ghost! proved themselves a worthy complement to the headliner. Start to finish, this was an evening that reinforced the value of building live dance music from the ground up. You can make synth-pop with a laptop and a microphone, but the full-band approach is a hell of a lot more satisfying.