Photos by Charnelle Stöhrer
March 27, 2014 - The Phoenix Concert Theatre - Toronto
In the late 70s Gary Numan became a cult icon, effectively eschewing paranoia-driven robo-rock featuring tales of automatons that illuminated the limitations of our mortality. The mainstream music world came to know him for the hit singles “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?” both of which would influence and be sampled by the electronic and hip-hop world for years to come. As the 80s progressed Numan’s music became more jazz and funk influenced. Sales began to decline, and by 1992 he had reached an admitted low-point in his career.
In 2000, bolstered by the recognition of folks like Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, and Dave Grohl, Numan made a strong return with the album “Pure”, a modern reinvention of his trademark sound filtered through the musicians he inspired. At the time however the live set was a bit odd. “Pure” still stands as Numan’s loudest and most abrasive album, and next to his early material it seemed like night and day. Like two different bands sharing the same body. Numan perhaps would agree, as he is much more disposed to playing newer material, but recognizes the mark he has made and continues to play his staples.
Now four albums deep into what can only be described as a miraculous comeback, Numan now has enough newer material to balance out the demand for his 80s hits. His latest album “Splinter: Songs From A Broken Mind”, is perhaps the best of his newer recordings. Although it is steeped in the modern, it is the closest he’s ever come sonically to his early work. Specifically the album ebbs and flows like 1980’s “Telekon”, at times intense and full of self-loathing, then light-hearted and contemplative, but now with a distorted industrial tone.
The setlist is largely dominated by the new album, peppered by equal doses of recent singles and treasured classics. New tracks like the sullen “The Calling” serve as effective bridges to the nostalgic, as it did in this case with “Down In The Park”. But in some ways the set is limited. While tracks like “I Die:You Die”, “Metal”, and “Films” still shine brightly, the afore-mentioned “Cars” and “Are Friends Electric?”, seem to be brought out mostly for recognition (although the current live alternate version of “Friends” is pretty good).
One wonders what the effect would be on some of the more severely inebriated members of the audience if the lights came up and those two tracks hadn’t been played (and yes, drunkenness that leads to confrontation is for some reason a normal occurrence at a Toronto Numan gig). With such a rich back-catalogue perhaps it’s time to retire those tracks from the North American setlist for a while in favour of some album cuts.
The set did not lack visually as the blistering lights that backlit the band echoed Numan-disciple Trent Reznor, and worked best during more modern material like “Pure” and show-closer “My Last Day”, which saw the band jam out in a flurry of noise. Despite tweeting that he had fallen face-first onto a patch of ice the night before, Numan seemed energetic and passionate, not to mention a bit more muscled and rosy-cheeked than his youth spent in pancake makeup. Although he hasn’t received the recognition or sales of his android “rival” David Bowie, Gary Numan has tapped into modern musical sensibilities in a way that his contemporaries have not managed to achieve, and it’s reflected when he arrives on stage.