Electric performance 

Synth-pop pioneer Gary Numan performs a standout set at the Tower Theatre.

click to enlarge Gary Numan performs at Tower Theatre Monday night. - ERIC MILLER
  • Eric Miller
  • Gary Numan performs at Tower Theatre Monday night.

“When you record an album these days, there are sometimes hundreds of tracks that you put together,” said Gary Numan. “It really is lots and lots of pieces welded together. You cannot play all of that live. You would need 25 people on stage or more. There are not enough hands. I used to struggle with that.”

These were Numan’s words some seven hours before taking the stage for the latest stop in his second North American Savage Tour. Dressed casually and sitting comfortably in front of an adoring crowd, all packed into a small, stuffy room in Bricktown’s Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma, the influential electronic musician expounded upon his approach to live performance.

“It ended up being quite a simple thing,” he said. “Anything that you can actually play, you play it. Anything that’s a noise, or just a silly drone in the background or squeaks and farts and all that other stuff that goes on around it, let the computer do it.”

While billed as a masterclass for the benefit of UCO music students, the informal chat session also served as a general taste of the concert to come, with extensive mention of his groundbreaking early albums, particularly 1979’s Replicas and The Pleasure Principle.

It was perhaps a testament to the growth of Oklahoma City on the musical and cultural map that a figure like Numan would be there in the first place. Here was a true innovator, a man who bridged the worlds of 1970s electronic experimentation and the early ‘80s New Wave pop movement, if not quite singlehandedly then, at the very least, occupying a spot on the vanguard. Yet he is also a man whose popular reputation in the United States rests largely on a single “hit” (“Cars,” considered a defining track of the ‘80s despite being a product of 1979). And he was being welcomed with open arms by a largely youthful, standing-room-only crowd, all of whom would surely be present that evening at a mid-size uptown concert venue.

Fast forward to 8 p.m. Monday at Tower Theatre, 425 NW 23rd St. Opening act Nightmare Air played an agreeable set characterized by dreamy female vocals, distinct shoegaze influences and enthusiastic stage banter. Meanwhile, dedicated Numan fans amassed, their median age appearing to be around 40.

Machman of the hour

Then came Numan, accompanied by a four-piece band: guitarist, bassist, drummer and keyboardist. While the stage setup also included a keyboard for Numan to play, he only manned it a couple of times over the course of the show, almost as though it were an afterthought. What he did instead was throw himself into his vocals, which have long since shed the robotic affectation of his early work. As a singer, Numan has progressed from Machman to human.

And his voice isn’t the only thing to have changed. Having absorbed the influence of Nine Inch Nails in particular during the early-to-mid ‘90s, Numan’s music took on a much harder edge, an industrial (or even industrial-metal) tinge that has never truly left him. Consequently, older songs are rendered in newer fashion. The urge to turn “Cars” into a static museum-piece recreation of its original recording is steadfastly resisted. In fact, it is no longer synth-pop at all.

Which brings us to the setlist. As might be expected from an artist whose career spans 40 years, the song choices struck a balance between old and new. But they also conveyed an impression of two more or less distinct eras, themselves separated by decades and multiple albums, and functioning as clear artistic “peaks”: Replicas and Pleasure Principle material on one hand, the present decade on the other. The former was represented by “Down in the Park,” “Me! I Disconnect from You,” “Metal,” “Films,” “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and – yes – “Cars.” The latter took the form of several tracks from Numan’s latest album, 2017’s Savage: “Bed of Thorns,” Pray for the Pain You Serve,” “My Name is Ruin,” “Mercy” and “When the World Comes Apart.”

The Savage-heavy approach would not have worked so well were the album not Numan’s strongest in years. The especially excellent “My Name is Ruin” only suffers from the lack of a live female vocalist (Numan’s daughter on the single) when performed in concert. Also featured in the set was “Love Hurt Bleed,” from 2013’s Splinter, which stands alongside the newest songs in its evocative synth riff drawing inspiration from Middle Eastern melodies.

Rounding out the program were a few more tracks from Splinter and other 21st century Numan offerings: “Everything Comes Down to This,” “Halo,” “Here in the Black” and the encores “The Fall” and “A Prayer for the Unborn” (for which Numan picked up a guitar but, again, did not play it much).

Interestingly, the audience appeared as viscerally energized by these relatively recent songs as by “Cars” – perhaps even more so.

But, admittedly, the icy restraint found in certain older tracks was sometimes missed. Gary Numan may be the same human being who recorded Dance in 1981, but he is no longer the same performer. The Bowie-in-Berlin avant-garde-ish soundscape of something like “Cry, the Clock Said” would simply not be possible in the context of a 2018 Numan concert.

This, in turn, leads us back to ACM@UCO event, for Monday in Oklahoma City was a tale of two, complementary Numans. One spoke self-effacingly of his artistic process, patiently indulging questions about the late ‘70s but eager to distance himself from the specter of nostalgia; the other put these words into practice, with no stage patter apart from the obligatory thanks at the end – just singing, and all the while exuding the energy of a man two or three decades younger than his actual age.

“Every few months I sit down and I look at what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it,” he said at UCO, “and I try to think, ‘How can this be better? What can we do? What’s not working anymore that we can get rid of?’”

At the end of the day, it really was quite simple: Numan plays what he can play. But more to the point, he plays what he wants to play, invariably on his own terms. To have done so for 40 years – with all of the highs and lows that accompany four decades of life and art – is ultimately his greatest accomplishment. 

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Eric Miller

Memphis May Fire @ The Vanguard

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