Monday 10 December 2012

Gary Numan and Officers at Kentish Town Forum - 7 December 2012

Gary Numan pic by Karren Bailey

From far and wide we come. We’re here to pay homage at the feet of a legend. He’s not cool or fashionable on anything other than his own terms. He’s Gary Numan.

The Forum is full. If there is anyone here who is not wearing black, I’m not aware of them.  This is not an evening for the uninitiated. Which puts me very much in the minority, as this is the first time I’ve seen the synth-pop pioneer.

First, we are treated to a set by Officers. The sound mix is so muddy that it is quite hard to tell exactly what they are doing, but they appear to be a fairly decent industrial rock band.

They are swathed in black (natch) and the singer is keen to show off his tattooed arms, the sleeves sensibly un-inked at the forearm.

Officers make all the right sounds and, amidst the murk, tunes emerge. They’re perfect for this evening, and indeed have collaborated with Numan on their most recent release.

The stage is dominated by a huge wall of speakers and two banks of equipment. A drummer perches between them. A guitarist and bassist strut in front of the speakers. This just leaves a microphone free for…

…Gary Numan.

There’s no getting around the fact that the first impression I have is one of shock.

Numan has always traded on being ‘other’. He began his career pretending to be post-human and he could carry this act off. He still looks and sounds completely unique.

He’s utterly pale, as though he has never seen sunlight, and his pallor is exaggerated by a thick mop of hair, dyed as black as midnight.  His face is still striking, his features looking as though they originally belonged to someone else. There’s a distinct vibe of Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Gary has long since freed himself from the tyranny of standing behind a keyboard. He allows his band to manage the electronics. This leaves him free to wrap himself around a microphone stand. He occasionally grabs a guitar, but never really plays it, using it mainly as a prop instead, waving the instrument at arms length.

The Numan voice is unchanged. It’s still a kind of strangled whine which is wildly unorthodox, but which works with these songs.

The crowd are in raptures. They don’t just sing along with the choruses, they belt out the verses too. This is communion as much as concert.

The set spans Numan’s long career, but principally showcases several tracks from ‘ Splinter’, a long term project that has not been released yet.

There’s a slow, sedate, almost melancholic air to the music. Numan sings of the Outsider, of the soul out of kilter with the mainstream. Weirdly, the last time I encountered an artist that so persistently dealt with themes of alienation and not fitting in with what others think or expect, it was Britney Spears. It’s fair to say that the comparison ends there.

The set culminates in a magnificent version of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”.  This version is partly stripped down to a simple piano-led motif before the familiar refrain crashes in with the power and majesty of two planets colliding. It’s an epic song that has almost never been bettered.

Gary Numan is soon to immigrate to Los Angeles (which might help his tan). In the meanwhile, I’m very glad to have caught him in his element on a cold December evening.

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