New Wave icon and synthesizer guru Gary Numan performed at the Black Cat on Wednesday night to a packed house of devoted fans. It was a weird but enjoyable performance that felt like two very different concerts in one. For the first hour, a very ill Gary Numan lead his band through a performance of his 1979 classic album “The Pleasure Principle”. The performance was a strange one due to Numan’s illness; the band sounded fantastic however as Numan tried to make the best of not having a voice by asking the crowd to sing some of the songs for him. The situation lent some impromptu fun to the performance of Numan’s ice-cold classic. By the end of the album portion, I was beginning to visualize my forth-coming rave review. Then, as if magically revitalized, Numan and his band suddenly launched into a set of guitar-driven, psuedo-industrial tunes that saw Numan belting out vocals like a banshee.
The two hours of Wednesday night’s concert featured very different sounding music, had entirely different energy levels, and felt like they were performed by two completely different bands. I am a fan of the first band, not so much of the second.
If electronic music was Greek Mythology then Gary Numan would be one of the Titans, the race of elder gods who were eventually usurped by the Olympians; younger gods of electronic music like Trent Reznor or Underworld. Numan’s album “The Pleasure Principle” broke synthesizer-driven pop music in the UK and the US heralding in the age of New Wave and Synth-Pop. In other words he was largely responsible for the introduction and acceptance of synthesizers into mainstream music. His contribution to modern music is enormous and his influence on the last 30 years of musicians and beyond is incalculable. But very much like the Titans of Ancient Greece, Gary Numan’s star faded from view for several years.
It wasn’t until Numan reinvented himself in the late 90’s as an Industrial-Rock god that the godfather of New Wave found a new audience. Numan has seen a resurgence with his new image but his music has been somewhat lackluster. It is much more interesting to hear an original being himself than attempting to emulate a trend. In other words, people should be trying to sound like Gary Numan, it is a little depressing to have it the other way around.
This observation about Numan’s recorded music was reflected in the concert on Wednesday. Even though Numan was sick and had a weak voice, the synthesizer symphony of “The Pleasure Principle” sounded amazing. It was incredible to hear those four synthesizers going at once, creating a dense layer of cold, rhythmic sound. Numan’s music electrified the air around the crowd; showing off its alien sound and proving that even after 30 years it is still vital and unique. As the swirl of synth hum danced in the air, I also could not help but reflect on the influence these songs have had on other synth-based music I love; Depeche Mode, Erasure, Yaz, Duran Duran, the list of bands indebted to Numan goes on and on. It was actually pretty overwhelming to hear this music in person while reflecting on its historic context.
Numan warned the audience of his weak voice at the top of the show and on ‘M.E.’ and ‘Films’ he turned the microphone over to the crowd; who did an admirable job as a chorus on the two songs. I could not help but think of all of us singing as Numan’s “Tubeway Army”. Even with a weak voice, Numan showed signs of vocal life on some of the other tunes. The awe-inspiring synths and Numan’s vocals finally, fully clicked on the song ‘Conversation’; which received an epic, extended live treatment. ‘Conversation’ was the high point of the entire concert and one of the best single-song performances I’ve seen in 2010.
Numan and the band quickly got his most well-known song ‘Cars’ out of the way with a rushed rendition before closing out the full-album portion of the show with two really spectacular synth performances on ‘Engineers’ and the instrumental ‘Asylum’. I thought that as the John Carpenter theme-song-esque ‘Asylum’ drew to a close there would possibly be a break then an encore, but much to my surprise Numan and the band quickly swapped keyboards for guitars and Numan started strutting around the stage waving his microphone stand!
It was as if Numan was injected with 5-hour Energy or something. He totally transformed into a Reznor-like Industrial Rock god, complete with full-on screaming vocals. It was a real head-scratching moment for me. I mean I was just denied hearing Numan sing on ‘Films’, my favorite song of his, half an hour prior to this. Whatever caused the change in Numan, it certainly had staying power. He vigorously performed for another hour, ripping through a set list of his newer industrialized material.
It was not that the music was bad, or that the band and Numan performed it poorly, but there was something seriously missing from this second hour of songs; I’ll call it “originality”. These middle of the road, seemingly Nine Inch Nails inspired songs (like ‘The Fall’, ‘Pure’, and ‘Halo’) left me cold (in a bad way) for the rest of the show. As I stated above, I feel Numan is selling himself short cashing in on the eye-liner and angst crowd. I know that scene and its music well and Numan’s output in the genre is mediocre in comparison. Most of the audience erupted with joy during this portion of the show though, proving that Numan’s newer image and sound resonates with a fan-base. I’m sure it was great for them to hear these songs.
Thankfully Numan did not completely abandon his classic era for the rest of the show; he worked in a classic like ‘Down in the Park’ or ‘I Die: You Die’ every three songs or so. It was great to hear the mysteriously revived singer give these songs the full vocal treatment. Wisely, he closed the main set with a truly inspiring version of his Tubeway Army anthem ‘Are Friends Electric?’ to provide a moment of real magic late in the show.
Wednesday night’s show was a fun one, but had such radical stylistic and quality dichotomies that I am left with mixed feelings about it as a whole. The first half, even as hindered by Numan’s illness was one of my favorite sets of the year. The second half, with its middling industrial-style, was less engaging for me but worth seeing if you are a fan of Numan’s more recent period. Would I recommend seeing Gary Numan on this tour? I most certainly would, just be aware of what you are buying into.