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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
PERE UBU The Mean Fiddler, London, October 24th 2006
David Thomas cuts an unlikely figure, perspiring, trench-coated, perched on a stool and squeezed uncomfortably into a gap by the side of the Mean Fiddler’s meanly proportioned merchandising booth. He’s smoking a cigarette down to his nicotine-yellow smoke-singed fingers, to his left empty coke cans, some improvised ashtrays, litter the counter.
Interesting support Stan Ridgeway is playing on stage. There’s also a box of CDs, Pere Ubu’s new album, Why I Hate Women, on the counter. “If you want to buy it from me then get it now, I’ll be gone in ten minutes, I’ve got to go earn some money”. Disinterested in our pleasantries and totally unmoved by the prospect of a Whiskyfun review, his eyes light up when he sees the Photographer’s tenner – “now give me the money” he growls as he suddenly leans forward to snap it up like a crocodile pouncing from the water, slumping again into a lethargic torpor once he’d trousered the note. All that was missing was his famous whippet.
I first saw Pere Ubu at the Roundhouse in 1978, a support act for the wonderful Graham Parker and the Rumour. It was, I think, their first visit to the UK during what was still a phase of marvellous musical turmoil in the world of rock and roll. And Pere Ubu, as I can still recall vividly, were simply astonishing – the thing of the moment – unconventional, unexpected, unpredictable and uncompromising. An animated David Thomas, looking like the main protagonist in Eraserhead, beat out distracted rhythms with his hammer and sang with almost hysterical intensity, to a pounding bass beat backing, with fragmented guitar and a disorientating science-fiction synthesiser that looked more like an old valve radio.
Phew – it really felt like Datapanik in the Year Zero as these proto-punks sang twenty-first century blues songs with an angst and anger forged in the industrial wastelands of their homeland, Cleveland Ohio. This was, you may recall, the home of a number of other bands of the time, not least the mildly amusing and vaguely successful Devo. If you want to know where Pere Ubu stood in the scheme of things then just consider this quote from the usually well-informed music website Trouser Press: “one of the most innovative American musical forces, Pere Ubu is to Devo what Arnold Schoenberg was to Irving Berlin” (mind you they also talk about “Thomas' avant-garde folk-blues-jazz-rock cultural synthesis”, which is a bit heavy going for an ordinary bloke like me). And if you want to know about their messy history and various incarnations then have a look at the ubuprojex website (“the art and business affairs directorate for Pere Ubu and related projex”), which along with the whippet is a pet, I suspect, of Mr Thomas. Needless to say in various interims Thomas’ reputation as an opinionated and unpredictable outsider, at odds with the comfortably collusionist business of music has been enhanced by a series of solo works (including an unlikely collaboration with Richard Thompson), performance projects, and most recently and marvellously his two sea-shanty contributions to the piratical ‘Rogues Gallery’ double album. His characteristically off-the-wall interpretation of ‘Drunken Sailor’ could be the track of the year.
But tonight he’s in Pere Ubu mode, with a sparkling band – sometime journalist Keith Moline on guitar (if not fragmented, then fractured), Michele Lamb on pounding bass driving the band along with drummer Steven Mehlmen, and star of the show computer-boffin Robert Wheeler who like his predecessor in 1978 occupies the left hand side of the stage with what looks like a home-made synthesiser, cables trailing all over the place, and a home-made Theremin which he plays like a virtuoso.

Robert Wheeler
Thomas is an energised presence on stage, but despite his sometimes witty interactions with the audience (Thom Yorke, Madonna, Sting and even little Kylie are all targets for his spleen) one can’t help thinking that, like the characters in most of his lyrics (no, forget that, I meant all of his lyrics), he’s very much on the outside, alienated, set apart and contemptuous of the mundane (I note a large number of references to Post Offices) – if he’s anywhere he’s deep inside his songs. In fact the intensity of his performance is quite remarkable – fuelled by endless Camels (tips ripped off with disdain), canned beer that makes him grimace, and the occasional pull on a half-full brandy bottle, he has an almost menacing presence, solely possessed and distracted by his thoughts (which one might imagine were all on the slightly angry side of things). Actually he’s also distracted to the point of fury by a failing microphone stand – an older and less frenetic Thomas has a unique microphone style which is constantly disrupted by the collapsing stand. In so far as the Mean Fiddler has a mosh pit we’re in it, and as his frustration and rage grows (which is telling of just how inside these songs he is) it begins to feel like a seriously dangerous place to be. Nicely, when the whole lot is eventually flung away to the floor in disgust, almost decapitating the man to our right, Thomas nods a discrete apology.

The Modern Dance (1978)
Why I Hate Women (2006)
And despite his apparent angst about cash and equipment we’re not short changed on the evening. Indeed he seems determined to deliver value for money – when he screws up the start to ‘Modern dance’ he halts the band - “Now these good people have paid their money to see Mr Thomas perform his hit and I think we owe it to them to ensure he does it properly” – before racing through what might have been a word perfect version, had we been able to understand a single word that he was singing. And having returned for an encore he drives the band on, calling songs at will, past the curfew, eventually apologising that he has to leave to catch his train home (and no doubt give the whippet its last walk before bedtime). The new album is a cracker, and he mixes material from this – notably ‘Love song’ (an outstanding song) , ‘Two girls, one bar’, ‘Mona’, ‘Stolen Cadillac’ ‘Flames over Nebraska’ (“I’m proud to say this is a song written for me a few months ago by Elvis Presley”) and ‘Synth farm’ with an eclectic selection from the band’s extensive back catalogue including the hugely misogynistic ‘Time will catch up with you’, the marvellously titled love song from debut album Modern Dance, ‘Nonalignment pact’ and ‘Final solution’, but alas not their early take on reggae ‘Heaven’, which would have made a very good evening almost perfect.
In fact the performance was so good that afterwards I wasn’t even annoyed when we found a parking ticket stuck to the car’s window screen. To have seen someone who (like Martin Peters always used to be) is still ten years ahead of his time - after almost three decades – is pretty remarkable. It’s just a shame that Mayor Ken got the forty quids, when obviously Mr Thomas thinks he needs it more. Help this man achieve his material ambitions - buy his records! - Nick Morgan (concert photographs by Kate)



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