Gary Numan playing at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter – yes please! I have wanted to see Numan since I was 12 and deemed too young to go with my sister and her friends to the long gone Cornwall Coliseum. Several times over the years I have almost seen him, like when I was in San Francisco but my travelling companion could not get a ticket and I felt too nervous to go alone.
Gary Numan shot to fame in 1979 and has been making his recognisable electro-synth music ever since. He has been an incredibly influential artist on many others like Marilyn Manson, Trent Razor, Prince and more. Numan is having a career resurgence and gaining his best reviews in years for his latest album ‘Splinter (Songs From A Broken Mind)’. Written over a seven year period when he openly admits to suffering a midlife crisis, depression, personal difficulty in his marriage and emigrating with the family to LA. What comes across in ‘Splinter’ is depth and a heartfelt journey through this time, often raw and moving with its honesty.
‘Splinter’ has gained a positive fan and media reaction (he has often been slated in the past) and perhaps it is this that gives a confidence to his performance. Back to more synth driven tracks in keeping with the early albums, it is also evident the influence of working with rock giants Nine Inch Nails has on the show.
This is an intimate show, sold out several months ago; the 450 capacity venue is packed with ‘Numanoids’ as the fans are known. The audience has grown up with the music and the average age is definitely some way over 40, with just the odd parent bringing along their teenage child.
With the limitations of the stage this is not a show full of spectacle and gadgetry often associated with Numan’s live performaces, this is all about the music and the man.
Prior to Gary's performance, three piece support band Roman Remains took to the stage. Liela Moss, (lead vocalist) and Toby Butler (guitarist) are from The Duke Spirit who formed in 2003 and toured across the UK and US with several TV appearances and supported acts like REM. Liela’s vocals were recently featured with Nick Cave on 2012 soundtrack to the film Lawless.
Liela took to the stage with great confidence and receives whoops and cheers from the audience at the end of the first number. There is something of a Hazel O’Connor spirit to her; perhaps it is her blond textured bob.
It was tricky to catch many of the lyrics so i'm not sure what they were singing about, but Leila definitely put a lot into her performance. She said, “Thanks to Gary for letting us tag along on the whole of the US tour and over here, we're massive fans.”
As the lights went down and the chants of ‘Numan’ cry out from the crowd, the band walks on stage and then he appears. Gone are the suits of the 80’s replaced by a more ‘rock-style’ look, with black ensemble of boots, tight trousers and t-shirt. The hair plugs and face lift have done him well and he is full of stage charisma, definitely still looking the part.
From my privileged side stage position it was a very up close and personal show. Two songs in, Gary’s wife Gemma came and stood next to me with her best friend and her 16 year old god-daughter. Interesting to note Gary and Gemma wore matching t-shirts and it was actually quite endearing to see that after 17 years of marriage she cheered and watched on with adoration.
With a running time of almost 2 hours it was a packed set with 21 songs in total ranging from 9 songs from his latest ‘Splinter’ album to tracks from his early releases 1979 ‘Replicas’ and ‘The Pleasure Principle’, 1980 ‘Telekon’, 1997 ‘Exile’, 2000 ‘Pure’ and it all kicked off with ‘Resurrection’ from the 2011 album ‘Dead Son Rising’.
Considering Gary Numan has talked several times about his dis-interest in doing a ‘Then and Now’ style tour, choosing to concentrate on his more recent work, he definitely did not disappoint and there was something for everyone with songs spanning four decades. Crowd favourites in the classics ‘Cars’, ‘Down in the Park’ and ‘Are Friends Electric’ were all there. It was at these moments that Numan almost smiled with familiarity through these tracks.
Numan rocked out with some head banging, sensual moves and emotion led dramatic arm movements during the more poignant moments. When performing the ‘Splinter’ material, at times he seemed lost in the emotion of the words, especially the track ‘Lost’. I must confess the beauty of this performance actually bought a tear to my eye. When talking to Gemma’s best friend about this, she said she had seen Numan cry himself on stage at a previous performance of this song. There is a real sense of vulnerability and humanity to this song.
Those that know the words sang along to the newer material with everyone else joining in with the classics, waving their arms in the air at the appropriate moments. It was a crowd pleasing show, enjoyed by all, but perhaps I am used to more dancing from a crowd. Maybe it’s because I was stood at the side of the stage, behind a barrier and not in the thick of it, so pogo-ing and head banging might have felt a little strange – but I missed the energy that say a New Model Army audience give off. I like to hurl myself about with the best of them, but this audience remained somewhat steady throughout.
Despite Gary 'rocking out' throughout the evening, it would have been great to see the crowd reflecting this, creating a more energetic presence, I hear that in past shows the audience have sometimes been painfully quiet and still which may have created an awkward atmosphere, something I didn't feel here at the Exeter show.
The Numaniods are a dedicated tribe of supporters. Talking afterwards to two particular die-hard fans who have been following Numan since the early 80’s, these ladies save up holiday days and money to follow their idol. Gary knows them by name and has over the years done drawings and other items of memorabilia for them. I witnessed Gemma going over and saying ‘hi’, giving them a hug and having a catch up.
I ended my evening by giving one of the Numaniods a lift back to her hotel where she said she had an early start to get the train to the next gig to be there in time to watch them set up. So I’ll leave the last words to the true fan, “An excellent intimate gig with a great interactive lively crowd”.