At 8:15 there were 100 fans queued outside The Record Bar's locked doors. The crowd was a mix of twenty-somethings in club wear, goths in fishnets, latex, and false hair bits, and Midwestern thirty-somethings (and a few beyond) wearing jeans and white tennis shoes. Many clutched vinyl copies of Replicas or The Pleasure Principle that were too worn to become fodder for eBay. These were authentic memories that, Numan willing, would soon be indelibly marked with the dark wave icon's signature. When the doors were opened, the throng moved from the sidewalk to the front of the tiny stage – a full third of the club's capacity entered simultaneously. I took a sad post a few rows back from the stage, and surveyed my view. Lots of heads, spiked hair, and a low stage meant I might as well have left my bulky camera at the hotel. Nothing to do but wait the hour until the unknown opening act went on.
Truth be told, opening act New Skin was not only unknown, but largely unwanted. Neither tickets nor flyers advertised the presence of this London duo (touring as a trio), and as such the audience was a bit confused when the three performers made their way through the crowd to the tiny stage. Vocalist Jen Jansson quickly endeared herself to the crowd with the rock star cliché "Hello Kansas." The Record Bar is in Missouri. While a few members of the audience bothered to shout back a geography lesson, most were simply content to lose themselves in the dance floor beats, electronic washes and visuals of Jansson's low-cut dress.
Visuals were a large part of the band's show – one doesn't accidentally wear a large furry hat fashioned from a pink tiger muppet (as guitarist Gil Berg did), nor did Jansson haphazardly decide to wear only one glove that stretched up over her elbow. How the band's touring drummer (Bob Malkowski) was able to play in large, black, platform boots of leather and steel was beyond me. It did, however, make him look quite imposing as he walked across the foot high stage.
While this talk of theatrics may sound a bit harsh, let me soften the blow a bit: The band was quite enjoyable. Its sound incorporated the pop bits and electronic fullness of bands such as Garbage as well as the dark atmospheres of Siouxsie and her Banshees. The band was keenly influenced by the industrial 90s, but also remained true to the darkwave 70s and 80s. For those not interested in the current state of goth, industrial or their champions Cleopatra Records (which New Skin calls home), the band still provided the excellent opportunity to dance along to surging beats, blips, and the occasional guitar power chord buried in the middle of it all.
There was an unbearably long wait for Gary Numan to take the stage, a wait made even more uncomfortable by the influx of fans pushing their way forward with cheap digital cameras held high above their heads (or, in one case, enclosed in it's own obtrusive fanny pack attached to leather pants). There was a noticeable fraternity among the fans. Was this the Gary Numan listserv meet-up? It seemed like it. Fans took pictures of other aping fans, all the while wishing to impress on the others how drunk they actually were. The prattle was numbing. I could not have been happier to see the house lights dim and hear Gary Numan's intro music come up through the house PA. Surely this meant a respite from the banality. Not quite.
While Gary Numan paced the stage to flashing lights and churning industrial beats, half of the audience busied themselves snapping photos for their MySpace accounts. The stage was completely lost to a sea of extended arms holding point-and-shoot cameras, the LCD glow of the audience, and constant flashes barraging the stage (most in the triplicate "red eye reduction" mode). All were trumped by the intrusive red glowing halo superimposed directly upon Numan that was created by someone's camera's "auto focus assist lamp." The entire mood of the show was missed (if not destroyed) by a glut of fans trying so desperately to capture the show for later consumption. Is this what budget digital cameras combined with easy photo podcasting and one-click sharing on Flickr has created? I was more than annoyed, and vowed to keep my camera in its case.
Through 1.5" LCD viewfinders, the audience saw the small stage dominated by a drummer (playing a largely acoustic kit with a few electronic pads as well), a guitarist, a keyboardist who occasionally slid off to play bass and, of course, Numan. While Numan also played guitar during four or five songs in the set, mostly he spent his time cultivating the alienated android frontman persona he created in the late 70s with Tubeway Army. Numan skulked about the front of the stage, occasionally stopping then, with a hunched back and craned neck, he would look up at the audience, wide-eyed and mystified. It wasn't hard to believe he was from another planet. Numan's performance did return to earthly lows during the frequent revisiting of his sole microphone trick (holding the microphone stand above his head with outstretched arms, and then dropping down quickly as if wishing to halve it with his knee whenever the drums and guitar would crash down into a loud chorus). Numan's own raised or crucified arms were another recurrence nauseatingly mimicked by his fans in the audience.
There were also a number of recurring musical themes visited throughout the set – particularly in the songs culled from Numan's latest album, Jagged. The vast majority of these songs were punctuated by long musical intros, dense instrumentation (or merely sequenced noise) and aggressive, distorted guitar lines. While songs from Jagged comprised about half the set, the other songs performed were largely a "greatest hits" from Numan's fertile, second, third, and fourth albums. Favourites like 'Down in the Park" received guitar-heavy re-envisioning in an attempt to update them for current tastes. As a result the more delicate moments were lost – this was particularly true of "Are 'Friends' Electric?" which was buried under an avalanche of insulting noise.
As has always been the case, Numan's voice was processed and then reprocessed to create the robotic tenor essential to his paranoid technocratic vision. As such, he sounded just like he always has; well, except for during that one song. Numan began his encore with "Cars" – his sole hit in the US – and whether the sound engineer forgot to turn on a vocal effect, Numan's earphone monitors were dysfunctional or Numan was just exhausted, the vocals sounded thin and weak. While Numan had every reason to be fatigued – he had put on an hour-long show of perpetual motion, maintained constant audience eye contact, and been the victim of a thousand blinding camera flashes – the remainder of the encore was spot on. Call it an unfortunately timed glitch, as the rest of the show was engaging despite the circumstances.
At the end of the night, Numan's hardcore fans were spent and fulfilled. Flushed faces smoked clove cigarettes, and proclaimed this to be the best show they had ever been to. Although requests were not honored (how could they be when music must be programmed and sequenced ahead of time), it was obvious Numan's loyal fans were not disappointed. As I left the venue, I heard both casual fans and the merely curious stating, almost in disbelief, how much they had truly enjoyed the show. When I got back to my hotel, I brushed my teeth and slid in between soft clean sheets, the rest of the audience probably spent the night reliving (or maybe living for the first time) the concert, as they uploaded four mega-pixel photographs onto their Flickr accounts.