Gary Numan leaves no doubt that he's one of the greats in Vancouver
At the Rickshaw Theatre, November 23
Well, let’s get this out of the way right off: this was a pretty good show. Like an episode of Colombo, however, the devil is in the details.
The Rickshaw is a truly fantastic venue to see and hear live music. Not too big. Not too small. Decent sight lines with the slightly raised seating in the back. Best of all, it has that nice sort of grimy downmarket patina that makes it ideal for getting all sweaty and wallowing in a vat of live music. Plus, there’s beer. Yay, beer.
Opening the show was the Brooklyn-based duo, Me Not You. There’s a lot to like here. Really well-crafted songs with a lot of attention to arrangement and sonic detail. Relying heavily on backing tracks for keyboard textures, drum samples, and extra vocals, the band nevertheless performed convincingly, with especially lovely live vocals from Nikki Taylor.
Me Not You, fleshed out to a 4 piece, did a nice job, despite once again suffering from the perpetual lot of the touring opener: a lack of lights. It was darker than Helen Keller’s safe room up there.
We need to talk though. About backing tracks. Yes, it’s true, all the big kids are doing it, but as my Serbian friend Alex is fond of saying, “that is a two-bladed edge”.
Most touring bands rely so heavily on backing tracks now that it blurs the line between helping and hindering the production of a live show. And here, I will sound like a pontificating rabbi, debating one of the finer points of the Torah.
On the one hand, tracks can and do definitely enhance the sonic production values when presenting “live” pop music to the hungry masses. Heck, Madonna and Britney don’t even really pretend to sing live anymore.
On the other hand, the potential for improvisation, human emotional interaction, and performance epiphany is greatly reduced. This is troubling. As a result, performance takes on a homogeneous quality at best, and teeters on cheesy karaoke at worst. But Me Not You were not as blatant offenders in that area as the main event of the evening…
Gary Numan is deservedly an enduring icon of electronic music. My friend and I were on our way to a gig in the early ‘80s when “Cars” came on the radio. Never having heard anything like it, we immediately pulled over and waited in a slack-jawed state until the song was over. It was pretty much at that moment that we decided to abandon rock as we knew it. So we bought synthesizers and drum machines and start experimenting with odd sculpted hair styles.
Given the ephemeral nature of pop music, Numen’s longevity is more than a little surprising, considering the fashion-based ‘80s crucible that the early works were forged in. He has continually explored themes of alienation, fear, disappointment, and depression in his work, apparently mining his personal life to alchemically turn lead into gold for many years.
Today, Gary Numan is not one of those touring nostalgia acts. If anything, his work has become stronger and more focused over the years, with 2013’s Splinter and the recent outing Savage being some of his finest work to date. Collaborations with Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finke and DJ/producer Ade Fenton on these last two recordings have taken the music into a deliciously desolate, dark, and industrial place. It’s a sonically fabulous but emotionally bleak corner of the pop music world. The musical equivalent of Detroit after the factories closed. Book your vacation now.
So the front of house engineer turned the bass bins back on after the opening act was done and turned up the backing tracks. Waaaay up.
Gary roared out of the gate with "Ghost Nation", "Metal", and "Everything Comes Down To This". Damn. It was pretty good.
The four-piece backing band worked through a solid 15-song set, each song seemingly more aggressive and relentless than the last. And then, a curious thing happened: the backing tracks disappeared for “Cars”, and suddenly it was like listening to a cover band play a slightly ragged and a-little-too-fast version that was only saved by virtue of the fact that Gary’s voice was in the mix.
After that, the tracks came on for the remainder of the show, and that embarrassing nakedness was quickly covered with a digital fig leaf. Whew.
Now for some more rabbinical commentary about those tracks. On the plus side, the backing tracks allowed for amazingly tight synchronization of a truly cool and effective light show. Whoever programmed the show must have been a musician, because there many times where pin spots were turning on and off precisely synched to the 16th notes in the backing tracks, something only achievable with preprogramming and time code.
Strobe flashes and LED towers came on and off so fast, and with such a degree of synchronization, that the only reason that the enthusiastic crowd in front of the stage did not collapse in a mass epileptic seizure was that they were packed like a tin of twitching anchovies in olive oil.
On the down side, the tracks made the backing band all but superfluous. It was virtually impossibly to discern any meaningful contributions from the guitarist or bass player, as their allotted sonic space was completely overwhelmed by the pristinely produced backing tracks.
In any case, this show was all about Gary Numan. Innovator. Songwriter. Survivor.
Pursuant to his ethos of detachment and alienatiation, not a word to the audience was spoken between songs. With eyes caked in trademark mascara, and writhing about the stage in a grayish gender-neutral garment, he did a fine job of rendering the tunes faithfully while treating the audience to dance moves that actually made me think of Mike Meyers’ character Dieter from Sprockets.
He had a technique of covering his mouth and microphone with his hands that often obscured his lips, and it honestly had me wondering if the lead vocal was part of the backing tracks lifted directly from album multitracks. Only his hairdresser knows for sure.
So all in all, a most enjoyable outing. As Bruce Allen says, “Ya gotta go and see the greats.”
Gary Numan is one of the greats.