Halfway through last night’s typically intense headlining set at Riot Fest, Trent Reznor took a second to address the crowd. “It’s an honor tonight to play with two of my all-time favorite bands, Ministry and New Order.”
Over the past 12 years, Riot Fest has slowly and, relatively quietly, established itself as one of America’s premier music festivals by focusing on two key tenets. First, it consistently gives a leg up to promising young rock bands by putting them on a stage in front of an audience that actually wants to see them (last night the Hotelier again proved that they are experts in making throngs of people do the thing in which they point ecstatically at the stage; I hope to get it together to see Culture Abuse and Downtown Boys this weekend). Second, it gives veteran artists a platform to play in front of kids who might only vaguely know who they are in addition to cool dads and moms who called a sitter for the weekend. Career rehabilitation probably isn’t the main goal of the Riot Fest books, but sometimes it’s a happy side effect. By which I mean, I fully expected New Order to put on a good show last night. What I did not expect was that Ministry would dent my head in.
I’m normally a proponent of the idea of at least trying to maintain a lifelong bond with an artist. This doesn’t mean you excuse shoddy work, but you at least check in with what they’re doing. But I truly haven’t thought about the Chicago industrial pioneers since, I dunno, either Filth Pig or Dark Side Of The Spoon. It’s no secret that their songwriting abilities took a major dive after Paul Barker wasn’t around to check Al Jourgensen’s worst impulses. (Surely he could have convinced Al that naming an album From Beer To Eternity and giving it this cover was a bad idea.) My initial plans for the evening were “well, I’ll get some food during a lull in the schedule, and since they’re here maybe I’ll watch a few songs and then get a good spot for New Order.” I heard them play a bunch of newer, not particularly distinct material I wasn’t familiar with while wandering around the food court, and then I heard a familiar guitar riff, one so heavily processed it sounded like an air siren and a chainsaw making out.
“Holy shit. They’re playing ‘N.W.O.'”
I finished my pizza fast and ran over to check out a set heavy on 120 Minutes classics like “Thieves,” “So What” and, holy shit, motherfucking “Just One Fix,” which I haven’t thought about in forever but which still sounds like the end of the world, 25 years later. (The background video even features the music videos clips of William S. Burroughs, because rock bands tried very hard to establish their counterculture bonafides in the ’90s.) As near as I can tell, frontman Jourgensen is the only original member in the fold, but the band he assembled nailed the sound: unrelenting, mechanically precise and terrifying. For his part, Jourgensen seemed happy to be there, smiling, shouting out his hometown and really selling the “Thieves! Liars!” bit. I was very impressed by the entire affair and now feel guilty for considering them an afterthought. They might have an uneven discography and their brand of industrial metal isn’t much of a current reference point, but their classics still cave in skulls and they work hard onstage. Their set proved they are deserving of a critical reappraisal and a long run as a legacy act.
New Order never needed any kind of critical reappraisal, and they’ve been a legacy act since at least the Coachella set I caught in 2005. And who deserves those cushy festival checks more than these guys? It’s funny, I’ve seen this band a few times, but never with the classic lineup. I first saw them while godhead bassist Peter Hook was still in the fold and keyboardist Gillian Gilbert was on sabbatical. Now she’s back in the fold and Hook is gone. Last night his replacement Tom Chapman did a very capable job of replicating his interlocking post-punk grooves, and Gilbert’s understated charisma made the entire affair 30% more charming.
They played a handful of cuts from their most recent, and actually quite solid, recent album Music Complete, but mostly stuck to the tracklist for Substance, one of those greatest hits albums that was included in the “Getting Into Alternative Music Starter Pack.” It might have been an off-night or a bad live mix, but Bernard Sumner struggled to make himself heard over the locked-in disco-post punk grooves of “Temptation” and “Subculture,” but he seemed happy to be there, really doing what he could to summon his younger, more forlorn self on the chorus of “True Faith,” and his gradual evolution from a deeply earnest ’80s art-student type back in the day to his current incarnation as a genial, dancing grandfather is adorable, and I mean that as a compliment. New Order has been making the festival rounds for a while now, and while there’s something a bit odd about watching such an important group becoming as well known for its t-shirts and iconography as for its music, when that frigid synth creeps in on the coda of “Blue Monday” or when you hear the intro of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” it’s easy to forget about all of your misgivings and remember all the moments Sumner and company have soundtracked over the decades. That’s what legacy acts are for, anyway, a chance to just shut up and just enjoy the hits.