Gary Numan occupies an unique space within pop culture. The electronic music pioneer made his biggest dent on the mainstream back at the dawn of the ’80s with the synth-driven single “Cars.” It was a worldwide hit that topped singles charts here in Canada and his native UK, and remains the song by which most people known him, if they know him at all.
But a long fallow period followed Gary Numan’s early ’80s peak, one that arguably ended only with the dawn of the millennium, when he shifted musical gears to make darker, more industrial work. It was a move, cynics might say, designed to capitalize on revitalized interest in his work thanks in part to Nine Inch Nails main man Trent Reznor’s loud fandom. (Reznor has recorded a cover of Numan’s 1979 single “Metal,” and, in recent years, has brought his hero on stage with NIN to perform it and other of his songs live.)
But it is hard to believe it was nostalgia alone that allowed Numan, on tour to support his new album Savage, to sell out Toronto’s Opera House. Granted, many of the fans packed in front of the stage this past Friday night suffered from male pattern baldness (an observation made from the venue’s busy top balcony), indicating the age of their own fandom. But a significant proportion of the Numanoids in attendance were of both genders and were obviously born long after both ‘Cars’ and the ’80s. And while recent Numan tours have seen him milk nostaglia’s teat, performing early albums Telekon, The Pleasure Principle, and Replicas in their entirety, Numan here chose a set list that cannily balanced his recent catalogue with the classics.
Entering a stage illuminated by stark but dramatic lighting, Numan, dressed in the same semi-Arabic, post-apocalyptic outfit seen on Savage‘s cover, took advantage of the crowd’s excitement to play “Ghost Nation,” his new album’s anthemic opening track. “Metal” followed right after, but the balance of the evening featured newer work, including Savage tracks “My Name Is Ruin,” “Pray For the Pain You Serve,” “Mercy,” and “Bed of Thorns.”
“Down in the Park” (a song Foo Fighters love to cover live) made an early appearance while “Cars,” played towards the end, was performed with far more enthusiasm than one would expect given how many hundreds if not thousands of times Numan, 59, has performed that particular song. Being backed by a four-piece band, including a keyboardist, allowed Numan to stalk the stage and prove himself an amazingly limber performer considering his age.
The majority of Friday’s set scanned across Numan’s millennial career, including “A Prayer for the Unborn” (from 2000’s Pure), “The Fall” (from 2011’s Dead Son Rising), and “Love Hurt Bleed” (from 2013’s Splinter). If there is any complaint to be made about this darker, NIN-like renaissance period, it is that it can all become a bit same-y. Fortunately Numan knows when to make an exit, and when it seemed like the crowd’s energy might be about to flag, it was encore time.
Not surprisingly Numan dived deep into his history for his final songs, coming up with enthusiastic renditions of ‘”M.E.” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” There was little to no stage banter this night, but the bond between artist and audience here in Toronto is doubtless. And while his past work may have sounded futuristic, Gary Numan seems to be very comfortable living (and performing) in the present.
Sean Plummer is a freelance entertainment writer, horror journalist/fan, feral cat wrangler, part-time Goth and proud dad.