Last Friday's performance at The Vagabond by 3 One G, the Winter Haven-based Joy Division tribute band, was jammed to the rafters. Surprisingly high-energy and weirdly thrilling, it also raised a number of philosophical questions, among them:
1. If someone wears a Joy Division T-shirt to a show by a band that isn't really Joy Division:
a. is this acceptable because the real band members are not actually onstage?
3 One G
b. is this more sincere than wearing a Bauhaus shirt (a calculated effort to wear a similar old-school "goth" shirt without representing Joy Division)?
c. should you just chill out? They're just shirts.
2. If a bunch of clueless Miami bros starts a hardcore dance circle pit during "Warsaw," perhaps not realizing they weren't watching a "real" band, is this:
a. annoying and disrespectful of the funereal atmosphere in which most Joy Division fans would prefer to stew?
b. just annoying?
c. refreshing, because the bros are reacting to it just as a high-quality punk song, without all the historical and emotional baggage?
d. actually not too historically inaccurate, considering the misguided pseudo-violence that often popped up at Joy Division's hometown gigs?
3. If an American Apparel-type chick insists on jumping onstage and dancing around, and Aaron-Branch-as-Ian-Curtis looks only momentarily flustered and then ignores her:
a. is she clueless about the band and in need of validation and attention?
b. is he ignoring her because Manchester, England, lacks attractive Latin women in microshorts?
c. would the real Ian Curtis have done the same?
d. is this our city's so often-successful tactic for luring bands to return?
4. If a girl approaches Branch-as-Curtis postshow with vaguely groupie-ish intentions, only to find he's already being dragged across the dance floor by another girl:
a. is it because Branch is cute?
b. is it because Branch is playing a cute guy who committed suicide and thus permanently ramped up his attractiveness?
c. does the universe fold in on itself while I shake the loose brain cells out of my ear canal?
Branch and founder/bassist Danny Scott (faux Peter Hook) say 3 One G is among the most accurate portrayers of Joy Division, that people travel from all over Florida to see them, and that their repertoire is the band's entire catalogue, not just the greatest hits.
These claims are mostly true. But let's be honest: Only Branch looks anything like the real-life musician he plays — except maybe the faux Bernard Sumner, who's nevertheless a little too brunette. It doesn't really matter, though, because the rest of Joy Division's members are alive, well, and playing music, and thus less interesting as objects of mystery and worship.
Branch's resemblance, however, is uncanny to the point of almost being creepy. He is about the same age as Curtis when he departed this mortal coil and has the same skinny, tall build; he sports the same pallor, the same mop of blackish hair, and the same icy blue eyes. But most important, there's his Curtis voice, nearly identical to the real guy's tense drone. He was on from the get-go, entering the stage last, as a real frontman should, even introducing the band as Joy Division, to a small collective gasp/sigh from the crowd. You could close your eyes and almost forget you were here in the swamps in 2008.
It was also apparent this band draws crowds. Fridays are usually busy at The Vagabond, but this one was at times elbow-to-elbow in the main room, where 3 One G played.
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The band's set list struck a balance, much like that of the real Joy Division, and refused to pander. "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which would have been the cheesy, obvious choice for a set closer, came third. The bulk of the songs were, as expected, the most recognizable: "Disorder," "Transmission," "She's Lost Control," "Shadowplay," "Digital," and, of course, "Warsaw," from whence 3 One G cribbed its name. Scattered throughout were a few deep-cut nuggets, like the Joy Division version of "Ceremony," later re-recorded by New Order (the post-Curtis band), and an encore of "No Love Lost." (The audience, with its chanting for "one more song," would have had this band play through the entire catalogue.)
The crowd was both overjoyed and shrewdly analytical. Were his herky-jerky dance moves appropriately timed? Would he have done them so much? Were songs played too fast or chords minorly changed? And here's where the whole weirdness of such a tribute band becomes apparent: Less than a third of the concertgoers overlapped in life with Curtis, who died in 1980. For reference, the audience was drawing off crystallized sources — collectors' videos, YouTube, fictionalized depictions such as 24 Hour Party People and Control. Surely the real Curtis flubbed some notes, changed his dance routine, sped up or slowed down a song if he got bored. But by 2008's standards, if it wasn't caught on video, did it really happen?
And what would the real Ian Curtis think of this interactive display of slightly morbid idolatry? It's hard to say. He seemed less anti-rock-star than, say, Kurt Cobain, who famously checked out 14 years after Curtis. He loved artists such as the Doors and David Bowie. But he also seemed to combust under the pressure of fame and increasing obligation. So from his grave (whose headstone was recently stolen), would he appreciate someone pantomiming him and people paying to see the pantomime as the closest proximity? If he were still around, would he mind? Would the audience then care as much?
It hardly matters, because in leaving life the way he did, Curtis was not, as it would seem, managing his own destiny. Rather, time has proven he was giving it up, uncontrollably, into the hands of those who needed him to be what they needed him to be. But in the scheme of things for an artist, it's hands-down better than the alternative: simply fading away.