Peter Hook & The Light at The Warfield, by Patric Carver
Peter Hook and the Light (photo: Patric Carver)

Peter Hook and the Light illuminated the Warfield Saturday night with back-to-back performances of New Order and Joy Division’s twin compilations, Substance.

Usually, the Light includes Hook’s son, bassist Jack Bates. However, Bates is busy preparing for an upcoming tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. Fred Sablan, formerly of Marilyn Manson, was an excellent replacement. It’s challenging to believe that there’s not some Hook-wrought DNA manufacturing Sablan’s sound. He crushed it all night with a seemingly effortless pouring of spectacular grot from the low end. It was drama in sound form.

Not all the drama was on stage, though. Nearly halfway through the New Order set, a woman rushed toward a fallen man in the audience, saying “Don’t touch him!” Flashlights were aimed in his direction, and I made out one of the arms of his glasses sitting about a yard away from the mangled remains of the rest of the frame. A small pool of gleaming blood had begun to soak into the carpet nearby. As the man got up, his face his the aim of the flashlight’s square on. His teeth, pink with the residue of recent wounds were framed by an already swelling lip.

But do you know what? Those lips were smiling. That’s a pretty good analogy for the entire show, and I thank this brave young man for taking a literal dive to bring it to life.

Just as the events that led our young hero to the floor remain a mystery, so does the alchemy of historical consequences that led the former Joy Division/New Order member to play these songs in front of audiences now. Though Hook has made nearly annual stops in the Bay Area in recent years, there’s still this welling of disbelief surrounding the act. It’s miraculous enough that New Order rose from the proverbial ashes following Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ death. After the considerable strife between Hook and former New Order bandmates, it is a wonder there’s a third act at all, let alone one that is so damn good. The result was a two-hour wall of sound that battered the audience bloody — and we loved it. We’ll never get the full story of how it happened, no matter how many books are written or catty interviews published. That’s OK. A little mystery is a good thing.

The first set, devoted to New Order’s Substance, kicked off with “Dreams Never End.” I’ve heard this song about a million times in my life, but not once with as much manic passion and beauty. Hook, who is not favored for his vocals, must have been sharpening his skills at the mic since I last saw him. He’s never been a bad singer, but he’s never been an amazing one, either. However, this night there was a directness in his voice, a clarity that hadn’t been there before. This was followed by a proper welcome to the church of New Order with the winding “Procession,” a song that highlights New Order’s charming obsession with poppy grooves and ethereal soundscapes. “Procession” is the hyperactive teenager wrapped up in a moody black shawl during their charming “goth” phase. It wants to be serious and sublime, but really it’s just too much fun.

Things really kicked off, though, halfway through “Ceremony.” Those dwindling little tickles of bright, high bass that led into the song always set me in a different space. As much work as New Order does to capture the otherworldly in their synthy arias, it’s that simple back-and-forth on the bass that put me in the stratosphere. This version was particularly good, with bombastic swells that shook even the most deadened Joy Division fan into movement. This intensity was repeated once more in the New Order set with a triumphant version of “Temptation,” which sounded more like the burning bright 7” release of the song than the heavier guitar-leaning 12” version. A respectable choice as out of the two versions, the 7” is sounds like the best New Order has had to offer — it’s synthpop informed by post-punk, but not dominated by it.

The rest of the New Order set was solid, but not spectacular. If you were a fan of radio favorites “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle,” you wouldn’t have been disappointed. There was a calm of their more pedestrian favorites before the inevitable storm of the Joy Division set.

Hook might be the last person alive to embody Joy Division. There are other living members, sure, but their current work suggests that they’ve lost touch with the hysterical genius that was Division. Every song of theirs was some stage of panic, some spoke in the wheel of human trauma. “Transmission” is arguably their least depressing song, and it comes off like an intense, worrisome fever dream. Has anything that Barney Sumner and the post-Hook New Order put out since Power, Corruption, and Lies even come close to that?

Frontman Ian Curtis, 38 years gone as of May 18, isn’t here to provide those mesmeric opaque vocals, but his spirit haunts the Light. Their “Transmission” was just as bludgeoning. As our society marches closer and closer something right out of a Margaret Atwood novel, ‘Leaders of Men’ seemed more fitting than ever with its foreboding tenor reverberating over the crowd.

Though it was the last two songs of the evening that really bored a hole in me: “Atmosphere” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” There were liberties taken with the arrangements of both songs. I am not prepared to say they were better the originals, but they were the best versions I could have heard that night. There was this impassioned moment in “Atmosphere” that was filled with pulsing bass drum that managed to marinate my brain with cortisol and serotonin all at once, resulting in brief neurological confusion as I was both thrilled an threatened. It was great.

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” was everything I’d liked throughout my relationship with Joy Division. It was thunderous without being flashy, dangerous without being intimidating. It was the pain and the pressure that’s already living inside you, the doubts you have about yourself that speaker louder than any external reassurance. It was really good rock and roll.

Hook and company appear to only be increasingly improving their revival of New Order and Joy Division each year. In my eyes, there’s never been another band that’s shared space with the dark little niche of the world that Joy Division so deftly explores, but the Light comes pretty close.