Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Diverted, not delighted

Ever since moving to New York City in 1995, I've had a tawdry love affair with Irving Plaza. I've seen any number of great shows there (Swans, Meat Beat Manifesto, The Crystal Method; the list is extensive) and it remains one of my favorite venues. Just the right size so that there's room to dance, yet it doesn't feel like you're knocking around inside a giant box, a la stadium shows.

If I were to compile a list of the top five shows I've seen at Irving, one of them would have to be Gary Numan. While the exact year escapes me presently (I'm thinking 2000-ish), it was right around the time when his career was in resurgence, thanks to name drops from the likes of Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson and others in the darker music realm. Bands who were so obviously influenced by Numan's sound were finally fessing up and in turn their fans were taking a listen to an artist who was woefully ignored by the American public during the height of his career. He was light years ahead of his time in the 1980s, yet many people think of Numan as a one-hit wonder (I suspect he despises "Cars"). He was a megastar in the UK, yet we paid no attention. This is par for the course when it comes to music fans in the US: ignore a genius like Numan, yet latch onto "bands" like Spice Girls; go figure.

(Yes, I know that Gary Numan and the Spice Girls aren't exactly contemporaries, but that's not the point.)

Anyway, by the time I first saw Numan at Irving, his sound had continued to evolve, yet it still remained rooted in the ideas he'd set forth during his beginnings with Tubeway Army: synth-driven music with a distinctly detached, somewhat cold feel. After all, the man suffers from Asperger's syndrome (a form of autism), so it's hardly surprising that this is reflected in his compositions.

The show was a monument to this approach: icy, treble synths washing over organic beats and moving bass. Not a lot of guitar or noise; more of a focus on creating that chilly, robotic feeling that, strangely enough, is really amazing to listen to. It was fantastic show, as Numan ripped through a sizeable portion of his discography, slightly updating some songs, but staying true to their initial sound and feel.

Last night I got the opportunity to see Gary Numan again at Irving Plaza. Susan was kind enough to accompany me. I have to say that while I was not completely disappointed, the show did not live up to his previous performance.

And why is that, you ask?

Perhaps it was concern that Susan was not enjoying herself (she's a relative Gary Numan newbie)? Perhaps it was because I was feeling a bit tired after a long day of slaving away in the salt mines? But, honestly, I don't think it was either of these things. Susan is an adult, can take care of herself, and certainly wasn't complaining; I also wasn't that wiped out. I think it was something a good deal more sinister and disappointing:

Gary was trying to keep up with the Joneses.

Last night's show was much darker and guitar-drvien than anything I've heard from him before (at least live). While the icy feeling was still there somewhat, it seemed as if Numan was trying too hard to be the angry, tortured soul as opposed to the detached, uncaring super being. The synths were also present, but buried further back in the mix, therefore losing a lot of their punch. In short, it seemed like a pretty straightforward rock show with some electronic flourishes. Certainly there were moments when I felt the kind of elevation I'd felt at the previous show, but for the most part, I was not particularly moved.

I suspect Numan has fallen into the trap that ensnares many a successful veteran musician: a new artist models their sound after you and then you feel somehow obligated to sound current yourself. In the end, you simply end up aping the younger musicians who've cited you as an influence. Essentially, Gary played a dark, hard rock show last night (a la Nine Inch Nails, Manson, etc.). He did not play his unique brand of icy robot pop; the stuff that has had such an impact on electronic music. Because Numan played a straight up dark, hard rock show, he ended up sounding like too many of his followers as opposed to the leader that he was.

Interesting cycle, no?

Gary, Trent wants his schtick back.

I suppose there is always the desire to sound current and cutting edge, but I think there comes a time when an artist runs out of fresh ideas. Soon much of what they produce either sounds recycled and dated or simply an inferior carbon copy of a current trend. Some artists manage to avoid this. For example, Bowie's Earthling did not sound like then-current drum and bass. Instead, it sounded like Bowie's take on drum and bass. But more often than not, when a veteran artist tries too hard to sound "hip", the results are simply embarrassing. While I wouldn't describe Numan's recent output (or his performance last night) as embarrassing, I don't feel it's up to his previously lofty heights.

Anyway, as I mentioned, there were a few high points during the show. His half-acoustic/half-rock version of "Are Friends Electric" was stunning and one can't help but get into "Down In The Park" and "Films". He actually ended the night on a high note with a great tune. It was not one I'm not familiar with, but it was spectacular; atmospheric keyboards and high pitched vox with very little guitar. Best song of the evening, I thought. In truth, it was a refreshing change from the guitar crunch we'd been served all night. Don't get me wrong, I like crunchy guitar (one can't like death metal and not like guitar, no?). I just don't expect it (or particularly appreciate it) from Gary Numan.

So all in all, last night's concert was more of a diversion than a delight.

Other dreams and diversions:

Sidney Bechet - The Originals: The Aristocrat Of Jazz
(weaving jazz spells from the most basic of ingredients)

Miles Davis - The Complete Concert 1964)
("My Funny Valentine" and four more)

Monsieur Leroc - Le Slow Motion Boogie Woogie
(not as good as I'd hoped, but the last track is awesome)

Ministry - Rio Grande Blood
(lock Al in a room with Dumbya and...)

Junkie XL - Radio JXL: A Broadcast From The Computer Hell Cabin
(long ass name for some bad ass tunes)


Blogger Kitty Laverne said...

This is a fair review of the show. I felt the same way, for much of it. I, too, felt a little bad for my companion who doesn't know his material, and if I wasn't expecting the death metal assault, surely he wasn't, either! Thank you for the thoughful recap. I'm still glad I got to see him, though I can't hear what people are saying to me today.

3:43 PM  
Blogger ocular spectra said...

i saw numan in 1998, the 'exile' tour. it was fantastic, everything i could have hoped for. i mean, "cars" was the THIRD SONG - and everyone still stayed.

by the time of his next album, i was a bit bored. what was a fresh re-imagining of his music had become a new formula, already more pumped-up and guitar-driven.

i agree about the trend of innovators becoming copiers. it's happened too often, and the exceptions are few. another good one besides bowie was reznor himself who did his own d'n'b take on "the perfect drug" which i severely underrated at the time because, well, i fucking hated superfast jungle techno beats, and i thought the chorus sucked ass. i like it a bit better now, especially compared to most everything he's done since then. then of course there's radiohead assimilating the warp records catalogue into their sound. hmm. i had another example but it's slipped my mind. i'll post again if more come to me.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Exile183 said...

It's a shame y'all felt that way. I've been following Numan since 1980 and saw many live shows in 1996, 1998, and 2001. This 2006 "Jagged" tour blows them all out of the water - and most Numan fans I've spoken to agree.

I might suggest you pick up a copy of Jagged - and play it on a decent stereo, or headphones, but *NOT* in your car - you'll miss much of the subtlety. Give it a few listens, and maybe you'll come to appreciate just what it was that Gary was trying to accomplish on stage that night.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Marcello said...

Fair enough, perhaps Irving Plaza wasn't one of Numan's better nights. But everyone I know who came to his show in Detroit (including those who knew almost nothing about him beforehand) will swear that it was one of the greatest rock'n'roll shows they've ever seen. I've never seen Numan look more confident, more enthusiastic, or more energized. He clearly loved every minute that he was onstage and the audience couldn't get enough. I'm sure that Numan would be willing to trade some artistic credibility to have Trent Reznor's level of success, but no doubt Trent would gladly give up a few platinum records to have one-tenth of Gary's charisma and showmanship. It was rock'n'roll at it's finest, and I'm damn thankful that I was there.

10:44 PM  

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