Gary Numan gets Middle of the Map off to a rousing start

04/04/2014 10:38 AM

04/04/2014 11:04 AM

Gary Numan is in his mid-50s and his best-known songs are more than three decades old.

Thursday night, Numan headlined the first day of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest, and from the start of a set that would exceed 90 minutes he made it abundantly clear that he is no retro rocker trying to revive old glories and sustain a career on the backs of a couple of hits. Rather, at 56, Numan is still as charismatic, enigmatic and provocative as ever.

Numan is touring on “Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind),” the album he released in 2013 to widely positive reviews. He is a captivating live performer, engaging in physical antics and dramatic gestures as he unleashes a voice that is inimitable and commanding.

Westport’s Ernie Biggs piano bar is the festival’s largest indoor venue, holding about 400. The room looked more than three-fourths full when Numan started his set, but was less than half full by the time he finished. The sound might have had something to do with that: It was clean but punishingly loud. (His four-piece band was ferocious and tight all night.)

The set list included nine of the 12 tracks on “Splinter,” which dovetailed seamlessly with older material, like “Films” and “I Die: You Die,” one of three encores. He obliged his casual fans with his Tubeway Army hit “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”

And about halfway through the set, he sang his biggest hit, “Cars.” Most impressive about that was how passionately he performed it and how contemporary it sounded 35 years after it was released. If his set proved anything it’s that real genius ages well.

Other performances

About an hour before sundown, two local bands kicked off the three-day festival in Westport.

Schwervon

, a guitar-drum duo, gave several dozen fans in the Riot Room a sharp dose of their invigorating sound, which is drawn from bands that were truly alternative (Pixies, Pavement, Yo La Tengo).

They opened with “Blood Eagle,” a new song about torture and bloodletting in the Viking era. Like much of Schwervon’s music, it was loaded with melody, crunch and riffs. About halfway through the set, guitarist Matt Mason paused to recite a poem dedicated to Middle of the Map while drummer Nan Turner took the floor in tap shoes and delivered an interpretive dance. It was all in good fun.

While Schwervon was charming early attendees, the

Clementines

were performing at the Westport Saloon. The four-piece genre-hops from folk and country/roots to hard blues. Lead singer Nicole Springer has a voice that can handle it, whether she’s singing a tender ballad or unleashing a blues anthem. Her band can stir up a storm, too. During one song, they sounded like a mix of Heart and Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

Various Blonde

opened the Riot Room’s patio. The music of this four-piece, led by lead singer Josh Allen, can be as deranged as it is engaging — a kaleidoscopic mix of styles and influences forged into tantrums of melody and groove.

Olassa

, a three-piece band from Lawrence, followed the Clementines at the Westport Saloon. Their music is old-time country and folk with intriguing twists: keyboards, accordion and occasional bursts of brass (tuba, trumpet) from drummer Tyler Bachert. Their strengths are their song craft and the harmonies between Allison Olassa and Cain Robberson.

Next up at the Westport Saloon was

Molly Gene One Whoaman Band

, who lived up to her billing. She hammered out heavy, angry blues numbers on a resonator guitar and foot drum, conjuring a sound that is as visceral as it is gothic. The fishnet stockings and cowboy boots were an excellent visual embellishment.

Before Gary Numan at Ernie Biggs,

Big Black Delta

, Jonathan Bates’ one-man electronic band (with some live drumming), delivered waves of soaring electronic soundscapes. The highlight of his set: the cover of INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart.”

Wells the Traveler closed the night at the Westport Saloon, almost seven hours after the first bands started. The five-piece is led by Danny McGaw, songwriter extraordinaire, and includes Mike West of Truckstop Honeymoon. McGaw is from Manchester, England, and his band’s music is heady blend of British rock and folk and American roots.

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