Photographs and Review by John Bentley

Pere Ubu

“It’s not easy being a Pere Ubu fan”, acknowledges David Thomas at the end of tonight’s gig. Pere Ubu have their own book of rules when it comes to music and performance and it proves to be an interesting and challenging evening of experimental rock.

Variety Lights
Variety Lights

It’s probably not that simple to find a suitable band to support the idiosyncratic Pere Ubu, but Variety Lights (named after Fellini’s first film) seem a pretty good choice. Their album ‘Central Flow’ came out last year and is a quirky psychedelic-techno-synthesizer work. The studio album was the concept of ex-Mercury Rev singer David Baker and collaborator Will MacLean. ‘Central Flow’ was a very experimental work, but now Baker has put together a band to take the show on the road. And very impressive it is too. Baker is joined by Swervedriver guitarist Adam Franklin, drummer Chaetan Newell and bassist Weston Broske (sporting a great haircut, incidentally). The band are clearly talented musicians, who really gel together as a performing unit.

Pere Ubu

Live the band surpasses the album, adding new dimensions, and creating an industrial psychedelic soundtrack, encompassing brutality and beauty in equal measure. Newell’s drumming creates a brilliant John Bonham-type clatter and at times it sounds like he is hitting sheet metal. The guitar and bass work perfectly complement Baker’s warbling, bleeping synths and powerful, frantic vocals. Franklin’s guitar playing is particularly innovative on the song ‘Crystal Cove’, where he creates a sort of ‘rippling’ sound that I have never heard the like of before. Let’s hope that the new band can record together and take this interesting project forward.

Pere Ubu

Pere Ubu have been around since 1975 and have made around 15 studio albums, although David Thomas is the only constant member and is the driving force behind the concept of the band. They have a devoted following, are highly original and critically acclaimed, but have never been widely popular, probably because of their highly individual take on rock and their refusal to compromise or dumb down. Pere Ubu have devised the term ‘avant-garage’ to define their music, which is a good summary, as it combines a high degree of art-rock and experimentation with raw punk and blues. On stage they refuse to adopt rock clichés, for example using straight theatrical lighting, as opposed to the customary spotlights and coloured illumination.

Pere Ubu

Pere Ubu could probably have achieved more commercial success if they had wanted, with catchy songs like ‘The Modern Dance’, the title track from their acclaimed first album, which is played tonight. But Pere Ubu are not there to be crowd pleasers and churn out the ‘hits’ and the emphasis is on newer and more experimental material, drawing heavily from the new album ‘The Lady From Shanghai’.

Pere Ubu

Thomas is an unlikely looking frontman for a rock band, but so you would expect from Pere Ubu. He is casually dressed like a workman in faded denims and check shirt, but with flamboyant orange braces and red beret. With the addition of the smallest pair of spectacles I have ever seen, perched on the end of his nose, he bears a physical resemblance to Benny Hill, but there any similarity ends.

Pere Ubu

Throughout the evening, Thomas adopts a slightly curmudgeonly and world weary persona. He says he has three day old soup down his trouser leg and the band have to brush the crumbs off him before a show. He keeps us entertained with an ironic monologue about ‘success’. His thesis is that we live in an ‘alternative reality’, whereas in the ‘real world’ Pere Ubu are playing 17 nights at Wembley Stadium to cater for the massive demand for their music and have written the music for the Cadbury’s Flake advertisement. Meanwhile, the likes of Jon Bon Jovi have given up and decided to leave the music business. Before starting the song ‘Mandy’ from the new album, Thomas tells us it was a terrible thing that Barry Manilow’s career flopped, so he himself was inspired to write a song with this title. Thomas reminisces about being on a Scandinavian tour with Kool and the Gang (a strange pairing of bands), who would play a ‘song for the ladies’. Pere Ubu then knowingly launch into their own highly unsuitable song for the ladies (’Vacuum In My Head’).

Pere Ubu

Thomas also exerts some fun discipline on the band, who he describes as “a f**ked-up bunch (including myself)”. When the band start one song, Thomas stops them, telling them he’s not ready. “Be ready, when I’m ready”, he demands, to grins all round. Later the drummer, Steve Mehlman, clicks his drum sticks together to start another song, only to be told by Thomas that he’s interrupted his sigh. He also tells the two synth players, Gagarin and Robert Wheeler that one of them (unspecified) is not playing right and he will have a word with the culprit later.

Pere Ubu

Thomas claims that “tuning is for losers” in his real world. However, the band nevertheless proves to be a pretty tight and competent outfit, who play a fascinating mix of guitar and synth music, that ranges from catchy rock riffs to freeform improvisation. Wheeler’s theremin playing provides a compelling backdrop to many songs, necessitating bizarre hand movements around his tubular instrument, making him appear like a mime artist. While it’s difficult to find any other band to compare them with, at times Pere Ubu sound rather like Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. This is particularly so in the angular song structures and oddly arranged guitar parts played by Keith Moliné and bass player Michele Temple, on songs like ‘Musicians are Scum’. It’s no surprise that Eric Drew Feldman, once of the Magic Band, was a former member of Pere Ubu.

Pere Ubu

The band get to show off their prowess in the instrumental sections of songs, during which Thomas sits on a chair, one leg crossed over and contemplative, pouring himself a glass of red wine. His vocals are more like some delirious recitation than conventional singing and at one point he sings his strange lyrics into an old style telephone, which he describes as his real world auto-tuner. As an aide-memoire whilst singing, he consults sheets of lyrics, housed in a folder on a music stand. The antithesis of rock and roll.

The show ends with a two song encore, with Thomas acknowledging the loyalty of the fans who have stuck with the band for so long. He leaves the stage without ceremony, clutching his bottle of red wine in one hand, as the band finish off the last song, ‘I Hear They Smoke the Barbeque’. It’s been an interesting trip into the (‘real’ or ‘alternative’?) world of Pere Ubu.

Setlist: Love Love Love; Free White; Mandy; Vacuum in My Head; Over My Head; Breath; Musicians Are Scum; And Then Nothing Happened; The Modern Dance; The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed; Misery Goats; Another One (Oh Maybellene); 414 Seconds; Goodnite Irene. Encore: Thanks; I Hear They Smoke the Barbecue

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