For someone whose career has been stymied by the albatross of “Cars,” it must be refreshing to experience this successful late act.
(Photo: Peter Hutchins)
Roseland Theater, Portland, OR
Though almost 40 years have passed since the release of Gary Numan’s most important albums, Replicas and The Pleasure Principle (both from 1979), the British musician has continued to release records at a fast clip ever since despite flagging sales and critical apathy. People began to take notice again in 2013 with the release of Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind and again last year with Savage: Songs from a Broken World. You could even hear Savage single “My Name is Ruin” playing during Goth dance nights here in Portland.
About a year ago, Numan brought Savage to Portland and sold out the 778-capacity Wonder Ballroom. Last week, he returned to Portland for the second leg of the tour, a victory lap of sorts. And while the audience seemed sparse at the 1,400-capacity Roseland Theater, Numan turned in a performance that, while similar to last year’s set, pushed and pulled between warmth and aggressive energy.
It’s no secret that Numan worships at the altar of Nine Inch Nails. Much of his later work sounds very similar to Trent Reznor. The setlist alternated between recent songs and old favorites punched up with the industrial trappings of NIN. In an interview I conducted with Numan last year, he claimed that when he writes a setlist he pairs new songs with old ones to prove his recent material stands up to the classics. It’s true. The weakest moment of the evening was in fact “Cars,” a song that Numan told me that he once hated to play, but has since come to peace with its inclusion in his set.
Numan and his band played 17 songs over the course of 90 minutes with half the songs coming from Splinter and Savage. Kicking off with “Everything Comes Down to This,” Numan quickly followed it with Replicas favorite “Metal,” albeit a more muscular version. Numan, spiked hair dyed a deep black and dressed in a muslin outfit like something out of Tatooine, performed with the energy of a man decades younger. Guitarists Tim Muddiman and Steve Harris, both dressed in similar garb, stalked the stage with frightening menace and looked as if they could be the house band in Mad Max: Fury Road.
While it’s true that Numan’s career is mostly predicated on a run of excellent records from the late ‘70s, fans should not ignore his recent work. Yes, hearing “Films,” “Down in the Park” and “Me! Disconnect from You” in concert is exhilarating, but “Bed of Thorns” and “Pray for the Pain You Serve” are excellent songs in their own right.
Rather than end the show with fan favorites or new songs, Numan reached for two obscurities in his encore. Both the brawny, electro-tinged “The Fall” and the tragic “Prayer for the Unborn,” a song inspired by his wife’s miscarriage, felt at home on a concentrated on the poles of Numan’s career.
With inspiration in tow, it’s time for Numan to begin work on the follow-up to Savage. For someone whose career has been stymied by the albatross of “Cars,” it must be refreshing to experience this successful late act. Touring only on his past glories could have been easy money-maker for Numan but for those of us lucky enough to witness this latest incarnation a retread would have felt like nothing more than a grab for filthy lucre.