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Gary Numan At The Fonda Theatre, Wednesday February 23rd 2022

Gary Numan
Gary Numan

I hadn’t planned to go see Gary Numan but when he finally rescheduled the North America portion of his tour, postponed because of the pandemic like many others, his first stop at the Fonda Theatre became a tempting option. So far, my only exposure to Mr. Numan had been a short set at Amoeba a few years ago, and I knew that he definitively was an artist who needs to be seen live, on a neon-lit stage with a full band, as it was the case last night. So on the night when Putin’s army invaded Ukraine, I was having a good time at a show, decided to enjoy the free world as long as it still exists.

Experimental music act Tara Busch, aka I Speak Machine, opened the show with a fiery and frantic set, although she experienced technical problems after her first song. It was not an unexpected opener for Gary Numan, as her lugubrious and tormented synths were industrial-tinged, while her howl was sometimes going to operatic heights. She performed standing behind her giant machine or trashing the stage with anger. Some of her songs sounded like short horror movies performed with visceral energy, or ongoing battles screaming pain or trauma. Curiously, she did a very low-energy and almost unrecognizable cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” while the rest of her set was mostly rage and fury. I Speak Machine is about to release a full-length album in April, unsurprisingly entitled “War.”

Gary Numan has a vast discography of something like 21 solo studio albums, and numerous live albums. He released his last one, “Intruder,” in the middle of the pandemic, 42 years after his breakthrough album, “The Pleasure Principle” which peaked number one in the UK charts. 1979 was Numan’s year with two No 1 singles and two No 1 albums in his country, but he has been a cult hero since, even in the US, with a large following that had packed the Fonda theatre.

At 63, Numan is still in excellent shape, could I even say he looks better in 2022 than in 1980? His stage antics involved a lot of headbanging and gracious to fierce arm movements, he raised the mic stand at arm’s length a few times or violently planted it on the stage floor: he gave us a high-energy live performance like the one you would expect from a rock icon. Most of the time, he was only holding the mic, and finally took a guitar for the last songs. Wearing clothes with a vague post-apocalypse vibe, his face covered with red tribal warpaint, Gary Numan’s industrial goth on-stage persona was unapologetic and simply impressive.

He started with the title track of his last album, a rather catchy song, but he avoided playing too many cuts from his new work, and rather sampled from his large catalog. If I am not very familiar with his work besides the obvious ones, the hooks were big and executed with plenty of theatrics and gravitas. Flanked by two look-alike musicians with shaved heads (one on guitar and one on bass), one drummer far in the back, and of course another one on synthesizers, Numan was a restless performer, stretching his arms and gesticulating at the sound of the Kraftwerk-y synth motifs. The music was angsty and complex, layered with industrial patterns and sprawling synth soundscapes, but the hooks were often opening a dancefloor, an invitation to bounce back and the audience responded as expected. The guitarist and the bassist often drove each other forward and intertwined their play while the wall of sound driving most of the songs was shaking the floor and everyone’s whole body. It was bleak and intriguing, the entire venue was often vibrating at the sound of the loud synth while the sinister vocals were done in an authoritative or gloomy manner, but the show was made to be empowering and certainly captivating.

The inevitable hit songs came past mid-show for the audience’s great pleasure, like “Cars,” a song that defined an era, or “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”… but if I haven’t followed Numan’s career too closely, it was nevertheless easy to recognize how much his aesthetics have changed since his New Wave early period. Over the years he has extended his sonic horizons with metal and industrial influences, and nothing of yesterday’s show was close to an ‘80s flashback. The electronic music pioneer has indeed grown his skills to a quite large palette, and there was even some Arabic influence in “Pressure,” but especially during “My Name is Ruin” or “Ghost Nation,” something reminiscent of Massive Attack; he even adopted some of their creepy whispers on another tempestuous song. Numan may not be the most famous rock star on the planet, he never reached the status he would have probably deserved, but it’s obvious you can recognize his sonic universe all over other artists from Nine Inch Nails to Marilyn Manson and a few others.

The show was as sonic as it was visual, Gary Numan was the opposite of the static performer standing behind his mic or synth in his original “Cars” music video. Kraftwerk rigid he was not, he was pure energy and only stopped his violent headbangers a few times to retreat behind his synth. His voice was in top form like his ageless body, and if he didn’t stop moving around the stage, his dark vocals never shook a slight bit. There was very little time wasted between the songs and the only pause the band took was just before the encore and two more songs including “A Prayer for the Unborn.” Last night was the first of a long tour of 36 dates across the US followed by more dates in Europe till the end of August. Numan is obviously one of his “aging” performers who shows no sign of slowing down any time soon

If Numan’s latest album, “Intruder,” is a science fiction soundtrack about the planet-threatening climate catastrophe, he has said that he considers it to be a companion piece to his 2017 album “Savage: Songs from a Broken World.” Numan didn’t make any allusion to the war happening thousands of miles away, he is not a talker, but he performed several songs from “Savage,” and I will take it as a telling message.

Setlist (could be incomplete and not in order, but the theater, unfortunately, closed the curtain before anyone had the chance to catch the setlist)

Intruder (Intruder)

Metal (The Pleasure Principle)

The Promise (Savage: Songs from a Broken World)

Everything Comes Down to This (Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind)

Films (The Pleasure Principle)

Ghost Nation (Savage: Songs from a Broken World)

Love Hurt Bleed (Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind)

Pray for the Pain You Serve (Savage: Songs from a Broken World)

Pressure (Jagged)

The Gift (Intruder)

Down in the Park (Replicas)

Cars (The Pleasure Principle)

Here in the Black (Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind)

The Chosen (Intruder)

My Name is Ruin (Savage: Songs from a Broken World)

Are ‘Friends’ Electric? (Replicas)

Encore:

Me! I Disconnect From You (Replicas)

A Prayer for the Unborn (Pure)

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