Pere Ubu Live Reviews

Pere Ubu @ Islington Bar Academy. 06may07.
The Art Of Noise
This has taken me far too long, you know. For years, I’ve subsisted on a dusty old copy of the ‘Terminal Tower’ A’s and B’s collection alone. Added ‘Song Of The Bailing Man’ recently though, which I love even more. Yet, I have kept Pere Ubu at arms length.

Every bit as revolutionary as the Fall, and just as vital to the rebuilding of alternative music in the post-punk years, but while Mark E. Smith’s aura had me continually adding records to a collection that has never been what you’d call completist within back catalogues, I have always been able to wait on the Ubu. Always next week, next month, next year.

An undoubted fascination, but their records have not been gathered up quite so eagerly, not like the last seepings of petrol from a blockade-starved pump. More like your first cigarette after a pride-filled, but slightly edgy, smoke-free decade. Somehow there’s something a little nerve-racking about diving whole-heartedly into it. For that matter, even edging gingerly toward it. And it is an ‘it’, what Pere Ubu unleash. It wriggles caustically, it shatters and cycles, it has been known to drone, but mostly spasms jaggedly. It is an ‘it’ that kind of makes you wary, though, of handing over £20 for a live outing. It is though contained within a fairly small room. More adequate to appreciate it’s power, but who knows what effect that might have? As a result, I am once against hesitant to hand over the top (well, only) layer of my hard-earned fold.

Père Ubu himself, the one from Alfred Jarry’s plays, may hold the key. The avaricious, cowardly, murderous King. You’d be careful before aligning yourself too close to that, and singer David Thomas, whose voice makes the band’s music so dramatically arresting, is physically reminiscent, which is the point, I guess. The only image I have in my head of Thomas is of a big chap, on a stool, face contorted under a hat. Think it was a picture from a David Thomas & Two Pale Boys concert in Southampton over a decade ago, but that is what I think of, and in tandem with the sometimes unsettling nature of the voice, perhaps its is easier to understand why I might keep to a safe distance. This is a suspect device that harnesses more than just imagined power.

So it is a surprise, and then no surprise, that the Pere Ubu of today rock harder and straighter than expectation, but then that paints too easy a picture. Besides Ubu are a very different outfit than that which started out in 1975. Like The Fall, it is the singer that provides the only physical constant, this group having morphed back out of the Two Pale Boys with both Keith Moliné and Andy Diagram now in the unit, bending guitar lines and blasting trumpet-through-electronics respectively. Next to Diagram, the keys are manipulated by Dids, deputizing for Robert Wheeler on this European tour, while Michele Temple thrusts with bass as Malcolm Young does with rhythm guitar. Drummer Steven Mehlman is the fall guy, the focus for the majority of Thomas’s teasing and tantrums.

I have talked about Mark E. Smith. Alt.rock’s curmudgeon. In which case, David Thomas is alt.rock’s grumplestiltskin. From the moment he arrives on the stage through the crowd, a bald, bearded behemoth, wrestling with his Macintosh for a hip-flask that the coat appears unwilling to relinquish, he delivers pithy put-downs to eager audience members, admonishes his band for not bringing out his ‘surveying chair’ and screams (thankfully off-mic) at an object that refuses to stay put on the lip of his lyric-sheet stand.

This may well be a movie of his life in production, and that may well be Mike McShane up there, playing him with a camp huff. Certainly there is a ready, and dry, wit within the stage chatter. Some examples…

“Ah, I’ve bust the mic, not even Captain Beefheart can blow the mic after one song, not even in the song either, but in the between song patter.”

“I’ve told these guys, there’s a $50 fine for ‘sustaining’. I like a sharp finish. Also, guys, it’s $100 for playing it like the record.”

“This is another ghost town song, like the last song, same as the next five or six songs. All about ghost towns. Only with different lyrics, different titles, different guitar, different bass, different drums. Keyboards, well, [looks witheringly at Dids] I don’t know.”

However, while the spoken word provides gentle, sometimes ticklish, slaps, it is the singing voice, still powerful yet still incongruous coming out of that frame, that lands the knockout blow. It honks and squawks; squeals and trembles; treacle is gargled; the larynx tightened and punched; it is ragtime; it is action painting!; it is a twist of Dali’s moustache; and it is a melting of vinyl (directly down the throat). Pere Ubu’s music is brilliant anyway, but Thomas’ voice makes it unique, the expert hands around and over the mic tugging out all of its mammoth potential.

Writing in 1985 about ‘Terminal Tower', Paul Mather suggested that “Pere Ubu will be looked back on as the most important group to have come out of America in the last decade and a half. Either that or they will be entirely forgotten...” A enthusiastic crowd, possibly a couple of hundred strong, 21 years after those words first hit page, suggests that their allure remains and that that which can inspire fear, can also capture devotion.

THE INDEPENDENT, 9/21/5, Nick Hasted
Islington Academy

The large man dominating the stage is one of rock's secret giants. David Thomas formed Pere Ubu 30 years ago in the abandoned industrial heart of Cleveland. They coupled the rusting ruins of American promise with the limitless potential of the pop they'd grown up with - from The Beach Boys to Captain Beefheart - to forge a proto-punk vision that has yet to be exhausted.

In recent years, Thomas has entered unlikely self-exile in Hove, where he can be found in the corner of his local pub, pet whippet at his feet. His music has mutated from its original apocalyptic clang to a dreamier fascination with obsolescent America. The only equivalent extant figure in pop may be Mark E. Smith, who has led The Fall (with, like Ubu, an ever-shifting line-up) through three uncompromised decades. Thomas's relevance and potency have been honed by the years of obscurity.

That is proven by the eager crowd here to greet him, ranging from original punks to the curious young. Thomas greets them with a cornered, assessing look and a song from Ubu's latest LP, St Arkansas. On "Slow Walking Daddy", as mutated a take on the blues as you'll hear, a theremin whips strange frequencies through his voice, producing seasick, overloaded white funk. Thomas' fascination with the currencies our society flows on is made plain by the squeaking-rodent oscillations of "Electricity." "The Modern Dance", a rare oldie, also has a layer of static. Ubu remain urgent enough to make the crowd dance, while warping their sound sufficiently to keep a tremor of rock's original shock.

"Oh, my friends don't understand me / and my wife begins to fear," Thomas murmurs on "Dark." It's a song based around the idea of salvation in driving and listening to pop radio, much like Bruce Springsteen's work, but Thomas's voice mixes unhinged conviction with wavering instability to suggest a man vanishing into his own mind. [Webmaster comment: This is a culturally specific allusion that the English probably don't get. Americans recognize that AM radio, these days, is the domain of talk radio, ethnic and specialty stations.]

"Perfume" is a still more beautifully desolate story of American loss. Thomas holds his hand up like a preacher as he recalls stepping into a desert diner much like a mirage, where he pleads: "Is there someone here / who knows me?"

The new "Texas Overture" suggests why Pere Ubu are a great band. Its lyrics leer at George Bush's home state [Webmaster comment: David notes that this is NOT true; the song is a celebration of Texas and everything Texan], while their whole career envisions America after its imperial era has crumbled.

They play undiminished rock'n'roll from the ruins, as innocent, violent and arcane as it was as its start.