I had seen Pere Ubu once before in Chapel Hill at the Cat’s Cradle in 2002 on my 39th birthday. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of memories of that show other than taking away the fact that, damn, Dave Thomas is a very funny man. That’s not to say he isn’t deadly serious, he’s just a hilarious guy besides. So with my 50th birthday approaching, and John Cale also at the Hopscotch Festival, it fell to Pere Ubu to convince me to buy a 3-day wristband instead of a day ticket, since they were playing Friday and Cale was on Saturday.
My wife and I made our way to the venue [“Kings Barcade“] which was a second story punk dive in the heart of downtown Raleigh where Ubu would hit the stage at 12:30 a.m. only to find that the band scheduled before them, Whatever Brains, were an agonizingly harsh listen. We exited the club and did some laps around the city to waste some time… but not before my wife got some much-needed earplugs. But when we got back, the band was still on, creating quite a painful ruckus. We hid behind a wall and braced ourselves. Ubu had better be good!
When the band took to the stage, the house lights came up for their set which was a nice change from “theatrical” rock lighting, but this was probably because the band members were working from music stands! Still, it was a welcome change of vibe. A big difference this time was that I had been spinning the excellent new album of Ubu [“The Lady From Shanghai”] prior to attending the gig, and in 2002, I had not heard the “St. Arkansas” album they were touring behind. I still haven’t found a copy of that album! But being versed in the album that informed much of their set gave this gig a real boost.
That Pere Ubu can be a downright prickly act to listen to whether live or on disc, is part of the price we pay for such an uncompromising and sometimes dangerous band. But with danger comes the possibility of excitement. And this evening, Pere Ubu were very exciting, indeed! The band had had work visa issues with their a British member so their “regular” guitarist Keith Moliné was replaced with the very capable Dave Cintron. But the rest of the long-time core of the band remained constant, even dating back to the last time I saw them. Michele Temple on bass, Steven Mehlman on drums, and not forgetting Robert Wheeler on EMS synths/Theremin. Who but Dave Thomas would sing?
The selection of songs was fairly amazing. A better balance of Ubu could hardly be had in 2013 with approximately half of their set being from “Shanghai” and a perfect blend of older material filling out the well-chosen set! That the band can in 2013 still perform tracks from the [relatively commercial] Fontana Years, where they were at their pop apex, is a beautiful thing. Because it takes all kinds to build a great rock concert. As a whole evening of pop or avant garde gets a bit dull; we like to think that it’s the juxtaposition of each in turn that gives the sort of illumination and shadow that provides a better overall picture of the band’s exciting aims.
Of course, I was instantly enthralled when the when the band performed the hypnotic “Mandy” from “Shanghai!” This long [but not long enough] song should be off putting with its eerie, minor key music backing a Lynchian narrative that should be deeply unsettling. Instead, I am as enchanted as a cobra as the circular, repetitive droning of the song removes all tension in my mind as it unfolds.
The moods did shift plentifully as the vibrant live arrangements gave lots of space for the instrumentalists to carefully fill. Ms. Temple’s punchy bass was a touch high in the mix, but the overall soundstage was still excellent, and she didn’t obliterate the other players. Youngster Mehlman [the only core member shy of 40] proffered a sparkling mix of percussion that belied a deft touch. My wife was quite impressed with Dave Cintron’s extremely precise playing. This was no stereotypical rock guitar but guitar wielded as precisely as a scalpel. He really won me over too when he busted out an E-Bow, which is a sound I’m a sucker for. Of course, he was sitting in on this tour, so the pressure was really on him to deliver and given that he was playing from charts and that Dave Thomas was just a few feet away, he delivered with excellence.
While the whole band attained a vibe not unlike that of King Crimson in terms of their mastery of control and breadth of sound, they avoided the raw power of Crimson for something more left field. But that left field was most capably fleshed out by the flat out brilliant EMS/Theremin playing by Robert Wheeler. In fact, I don’t think I can say I’ve heard a more exciting synth player in a live setting ever, since if you will recall, the EMS synth he played was bereft of keys with just touchplates, pots and patch cords to affect the sound. He was jumping back and forth between the EMS and the Theremin the entire set as he added brilliant whorls of sound to the band’s sonic fingerprint. His Theremin playing was flat out the best I’d ever heard in my life. He was doing amazing things with that Theremin! Credit to the mixer for keeping his work popping in the mix, which as I mentioned, was a tad heavy on the bass.
And then there was Dave Thomas. He looked a different man from the gent we saw eleven years ago just 60 miles away. For starters, he’s lost a lot of the weight he had carried from the early days, as well as much of his hair. His famous soul patch [along with the rest of his whiskers] was now white. But his humor was black. Every word this man uttered between the songs was laugh out loud hilarious. Especially rich was his riffing on what it was like opening up for Kool & The Gang in Germany at some point in their past. But every laugh enabled him to slip the knife in a little deeper as his dark humor circled back to the questioningly bleak music.
Thomas performed sitting down the entire set, but there was no shortage of gestures to keep your attention from drifting, and as ever, Thomas’ unique voice sounds like no one else you would ever hear fronting a white hot experimental rock band that laughed at boundaries like Pere Ubu. His is a voice one can more readily imagine in the context of folk music, maybe, but not this material. Of course, that’s what in part makes it so compelling to me. There’s just a sense of limitations discarded that comes with Pere Ubu. Their songs are sometimes alien and abstract, and at other times profoundly human music. And every now and then, a perfect synthesis of the two, as with “414 Seconds” from the current album.
As Thomas examined whether his disturbing actions occurred in a dream state or perhaps the dream was to make the reality of his disturbing actions more bearable, one cannot help but gape in awe at the thoughts and feelings being explored, perhaps the first time, in the context of “popular song.” One got the sense after the triumphant encore of “Final Solution,” sounding as contemporary as ever, that Pere Ubu are occupying a powerful space at this time, so missing them on the rest of their current tour dates is simply not an option.
Pere Ubu | Shanghai World Tour 2013
Sep 16 – Ottawa ON @ Mavericks
Sep 17 – Montreal Q @ Le Cabaret du Mile End
Sep 18 – Toronto ON @ Lee’s Palace
Sep 19 – Cleveland OH @ Beachland Ballroom
Sep 20 – Detroit MI @ Trinosophes
Sep 21 – Chicago IL @ Empty Bottle
Sep 22 – Bloomington IN @ The Bishop
Nov 1 – Torino ITALY @ Spazio 211 Club
Nov 2 – Verona ITALY @ Interzona Club
Nov 3 – Zagreb CROATIA @ Club Mochvara
Nov 11 – London ENGLAND @ 100 Club
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