I Could Observe You All: Gary Numan Pleasures Your Principle

Published on November 4th, 2010 in: Concert Reviews, Music |

By Christian Lipski
All photos by Deborah Lipski

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Roseland Ballroom, Portland OR
November 1, 2010

In the tradition of older groups revisiting their seminal works, Gary Numan is playing his 1979 album The Pleasure Principle in its entirety.

The crowd at the Roseland Ballroom skews towards the later 30s, the more experienced fans with serious time in. Some darkwave, some new wave, outsiders and outcasts in black leather trenchcoats (I’m not burning the duster), mixing with younger hip kids who are tracing roots back from chiptune and electro, because as Tron said, “you always forget how good fresh energy feels, till you get to a pure source. . . ” It is generally a core crowd, though. Most of the fairer-weather fans have dried up and fallen off after 30 years without a whisper on US radio after “Cars.” But there are those fans who still prefer Numan’s earlier work, hence “The Pleasure Principle Tour.”

It’s a smart concept, letting attendees know what most of the music will be while gently introducing them to newer work. For gone are the days of the icy electronica, or the fretless-bass dance funk. Numan has gone very dark and very angry with layers of guitars and hammering drums, which can be scary to the uninitiated.

Numan’s last visit to Portland was 1998, at Berbati’s Pan, but he’s moved up to the Roseland Ballroom to accommodate additional Pleasure Principle fans, a move he feared was “way too big for someone as little known as me,” but the venue is well-filled. Two opening acts and a DJ have pushed the headliner to a 10 p.m. start, and there are a few yawns. It’s a late Monday night for those who bought the album new.

The lights dim, and stage lighting begins with vertical bars of light, reminiscent of the Telekon album cover. Numan walks on as one of the band, eschewing the rock star entrance, and they begin with “Random,” an instrumental outtake from The Pleasure Principle, followed by “Airlane,” the instrumental opening track of the album. Though he plays the old songs faithfully, Numan is distancing himself from nostalgia in subtle ways. Though he is in black tunic and jeans, his band are young punks in T-shirts and wallet chains. This is not the old days, he means.

When he gets to the first song with vocals, “Metal,” it’s obvious that he’s well prepared for the job. Though it has never been perfect, his voice is just as strong as it ever was, and he’s not straining for the higher notes. He’s not a fan of nostalgia, but he’s not a fan of half-assing it either, and there’s passion in his delivery. There’s very little movement in the crowd; everyone’s transfixed by the music and the memories. The sound is excellent in the ballroom, with bass and drums ruling the lower registers, allowing the four banks of synths to decorate the upper.

Four keyboard players means that with the addition of sequencing, Numan can play what he wants, or not at all, really, but he’s in there for every song. His performance is evocative, but it’s isolated; he does look at the crowd and smile at times, but there are no words for the audience, no introduction of songs. It’s the way he’s always been.

Even still, he reaches the fans. His detached cool resonates with their own alienation for some, inspires protective feelings in others. One drunk female fan spends most of the evening alternately negotiating with and trying to outfox the security guard. I’ve never seen anyone actually try to hide crouching behind a six-inch support post. She knows all the lyrics, though, which she sings to the folks in the disabled seating area that she’s been able to finagle access to. She is accidentally tripped by a dancing guy with his T-shirt half off, for which she is offered an apology fist-bump. Drunk fan never gets her way.

The Pleasure Principle set ends with “Cars,” which separates out the few casual fans who run up to the front to indicate that they in fact know the song. I don’t begrudge them their enthusiasm, though, as they obviously enjoy it. When the song ends, they move back to their original positions, and the new material begins. Stagehands remove the synths at the front of the stage and guitars come out.

The newer material (mostly from Jagged and the upcoming Splinter) is aggressive and somewhat homogeneous, but the younger elements of the crowd begin to unfreeze and jump up and down. Numan is strangling the mic stand, lunging toward the crowd in defiance of his 52 years. He is adding a hoarse whisper to his vocal arsenal, a bit of a nod to screamo, but not entirely out of place. At times he joins in the attack on a Gibson Les Paul, plainly enjoying himself. The stream of new songs is broken up by old favorites “Down In The Park,” “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” and “I Die: You Die,” each one delivered with power and greedily devoured by the audience before eventually the show concludes.

After his 16-show tour of America, Numan will return to England to finish recording Splinter, and plans to return to America for that album. It remains to be seen whether he will continue the tradition of celebrating the milestones of his early albums, but after touring Telekon, Replicas, and now The Pleasure Principle, things look promising.

Numan’s Pleasure Principle tour visits L.A.’s El Rey Ballroom tonight; next on the tour are two dates in Mexico. Check the official Gary Numan site for more information.

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