Pere Ubu @ the Doug Fir Lounge 12/12/2013 (with Toyboat Toyboat Toyboat)
Last night the legendary Pere Ubu commanded the stage at Doug Fir Lounge. Frontman David Thomas, his band, and their supporting act absolutely blew away a room packed with an unusually attentive crowd. It was easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen from a grandfather-age rock act in my life.
When I read that Pere Ubu were coming to Portland to support their new album The Lady from Shanghai, I knew it was a rare opportunity I could not pass over. When I was first getting into music in my late teens, one album I would continually see in the canon was The Modern Dance by Pere Ubu. Though I didn’t completely get it right away, I was instantly fascinated by the off-kilter, confrontational aesthetic of this music. “Non-Alignment Pact”, “Real World”, “Sentimental Journey”, and “Life Stinks” got branded into my brain on the first listen. If Pere Ubu hasn’t become popular over the years, I think it’s just because we expect music to confirm what we already know and comfort us. People like David Thomas aren’t really too interested in that business, they just do their thing whether or not the typical person on the street likes it. I think you have to respect that.
I’ve read that John Peel once described The Fall as “always different, always the same”. You could say the same of Pere Ubu, perhaps because, like The Fall, it’s more or less turned into a one-person project over the years. Pere Ubu always manages, album after album, to sound like Pere Ubu. David Thomas is mostly known for The Modern Dance, but he’s delivered a unique vision time and again over the years on New Picnic Time, Pennsylvania, The Art of Walking, and about a dozen other albums. The only time I think they’ve ever even tried to sound differently was around the early nineties, when they toured with Pixies and released a string of respectable, cleanly produced albums: Cloudland, Worlds in Collision, and Story of my Life. If you ever get the chance, give those albums a listen– they’re just as good as Ubu’s harsher garage-rock work.
This new album, though, is in the mode of the usual Pere Ubu– which is how’s it’s been for all of their sporadic output since the mid-nineties. It’s grim, uncompromising garage rock with a sense of the absurd thrown in for good measure. Grim, powerful, and strange, that’s how I would describe the presence of their music from last night.
The legendary name “Pere Ubu” gave the local opening act Toyboat Toyboat Toyboat big shoes to fill, but they did not disappoint. They breezed through a short set of jaunty punk-jazz weirdo music with utter assurance. With a lineup of a trumpeter/vocalist, drummer, bassist, and drum machine/keyboard player, their sound mostly strayed towards their own aggressive, pared-down version of jazz-fusion. Two of their tunes though, “Glass Helmet” and “Apathetic Aliens”, reminded me a little of early Devo, with their jokey, arch-intellectual air of menace. They danced, they thanked the crowd often, and vocalist Travis Henderson threw himself at the mic with a ferocity I don’t see often. This band wasn’t necessarily my thing, but they were pretty damn good and I’d gladly see them again.
I came back down to the lounge after chatting upstairs just in time to catch Pere Ubu calmly filing out on stage. The band was tight and many a time they were able to hold us all in thrall for over five minutes of drama. One of the high points came at the beginning, with their performance of the art-rock epic “Mandy”, the only song off the new album I recognized right away, I have to admit. The song, a disturbing tale of lost love, is a masterstroke worthy of their earlier albums. Though I did not recognize some of the newer tunes they played, like “414 Seconds” and “And Then Nothing Happened”, I found myself wanting to go back and give The Lady from Shanghai a few spins more. Overall I was really impressed by how comfortable the band seemed with each other. The drummer, Steve Mehlman (who looked like he could be Thomas’s grandson), and the bassist, Michele Temple, seemed to operate independent of each other, but they both came off as seasoned veterans. Guitarist Keith Moliné really tore up the stage on “Musicians are Scum” and “Mandy”. They even managed to make a Cloudland song I recognized, “Breath”, their own. What was also clear though was that Thomas and theremin/synthesizer player Robert Wheeler seemed to be running the show. Wheeler really carried that distinctly Pere Ubu atmosphere of menace and uncertainty– he could jolt the whole room with a sudden stab at the theremin or a slowburning wall of noise.
Thomas kept the mood light with his dry, but gentle, wit. “I’m not your friend,” he told us with a smile, at one point. “Because I tell the truth,” he went on, “In the press, I’m ‘Mr. Grumpy’.” He later went on to admit, “I really do love you people.” He cut an odd figure, sitting in a chair sipping wine between songs while the rest of his band stood. And yet he had the situation in the palm of his hand.
At the encore, the band came out quickly for a blistering version of “Final Solution”. A man standing near me seemed bemused to get to see me fist-pumping and singing-along. They followed it up with “Heaven”, during which I got treated to the odd spectacle of a really nice, normal-looking middle-aged woman attempting to get down to Pere Ubu. One of the funniest moments of the night came just afterwards when Thomas and the band improvised a song about their wonderful Pere Ubu merchandise. “Where’s my girlfriend gone? She was fidgeting the whole time during that damn Pere Ubu band and their songs about birdies!”, Thomas wailed. “Our t-shirts are the color of your girlfriend’s eyes…” They finished up with a quick version of “Street Waves”.
It was a night to remember and I’ll never have another one quite like it, I’m sure.