Even as the world’s economy has cratered over the last few years, musicians have used touring as a survival strategy in the face of reduced sales of actual music. Alternative and underground musicians, from Mission of Burma and Public Enemy to Weezer, have further developed a niche to tour (and even reunite) to play seminal albums from start to finish. More than just greatest-hits concerts, such shows promise built-in audiences of hardcore devotees and new fans, rarely-heard deep cuts, and visions of musicial history in action. Few electronic artists have taken that plunge so far but Gary Numan has led the way, previously airing out his Telekon album and now playing his cult classic The Pleasure Principle in full.
In spite of a career that never reached the heights of artists who were influenced by him (Nine Inch Nails), covered him (Fear Factory), or even sampled him (Basement Jaxx), over time synthpop’s dark, aggressive zeitgeist was acknowledged in the 1979 solo album that saw Numan break from his group Tubeway Army. “Cars” is the standout, nay, legendary track from that release, but the whole album is a solid package full of smartly repeated instrumental themes and sturdy templates for technological applications of dread and angst. Expectations at a packed house in Philadelphia were therefore high, especially after opening act Rasputina got the goth ball rolling with their moody, magical cellos.
Numan then brought to the stage five colleagues, three of them on keyboards plus a live drummer and bassist, and warmed up with the Pleasure Principle outtake “Random.” From the start, all of their instrumental work sounded powerful. Running through the album and the non-album tracks padding the show afterwards, the band regularly added depth to works created by older technology and successfully reproduced Numan’s latter-day contributions to the goth and industrial vernacular. While their bass-heavy take on “Cars” seemed painfully short, the thundering grooves in the middle of the album’s longest track, “Conversation,” highlighted the performance of the night.
Numan acknowledged throat problems which earlier in the tour caused his first illness-related show cancellation in three decades, and it made for some puzzling moments during the Philadelphia date. He spoke-sang one of his Tubeway Army breakthroughs, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”, and turned the mic to the crowd so they could sing pretty much all of “M.E.” However, seemingly more straining songs found him coming through clearly, even sustaining long notes at some distance from his microphone. It might be libelous to say that Numan was aided by lip-syncing; it’s entirely possible he blossomed as the night progressed. At the very least, Numan’s inconsistency suggested he might have been better served postponing more shows to let his throat heal properly.
There were other points during the Pleasure Principle songs where Numan looked like a tired, aging bandleader, hitting single synth keys with overly artsy flourishes. His energy and showmanship improved significantly, and seemed more appropriate, once he got out from behind his keyboard and worked with a guitar and mic stand. As the night wore on Numan’s presence gradually felt more genuine, and his band’s modern drones and punched-out beats made connections to countless artists who followed him (and likely played the Trocadero stage, too).
To paraphrase a line from The Pleasure Principle, Numan and his crew were not gods, were not men, and made no claims. They were musicmakers who skillfully moved from the history lesson at the start of the show, through the title tracks of two of Numan’s recent career-reaffirming studio albums (Pure and Jagged), and into engaging encore performances like “A Prayer for the Unborn.” It may have been an imperfect night with Gary Numan, but that’s still a night that’s better than most.
Photography by Adam Blyweiss