Let's get this out of the way first: these masters of the avant-garage genre (well, lead vocalist David Thomas came up with the term, and there might not be many contending combos for such a mortar'n'gown) had played a gig four days earlier, in Chicago. This is about as equidistant to the west as NYC is to the east from Pere Ubu's Cleveland breeding-ground. This gig involved a complete rendition of The Modern Dance, the band's startling debut album from way back in 1978. Such a reproduction tactic is a performing trend that has particularly been developing as a by-product of the All Tomorrow's Parties festivals, where bands will increasingly be invited to select a classic album for complete exhumation.
Comparisons could be made with The Residents, another revolutionary gang who have moved increasingly towards narrative, theatrical presentations. Call me a retro-primitivist, but I'd much rather hear these bands play their own displaced versions of rock'n'roll songs. There's a sense that certain folks have always been too hung up on making rock music lollop out of its teenage tightness, spraying deliberately intellectual substances into all corners. Surely such depth can already be found within the words and chords spouted by such creative regents as The Residents and Pere Ubu?
Anyway, before even arriving at this gig, your scribe was frustrated that Thomas and his crew weren't going to be delivering the same Modern Dance in NYC. This could be perceived as an under-developed nostalgia on his part, a primordial desire to be battered with a rock'n'roll bludgeon. It could be argued that the Stateside premiere of their dramatic adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi would be far more exciting. This was the 1896 absurdist play that gave Ubu their name, a savagely anarchic romp that would suit the Thomas persona perfectly. In some ways this turned out to be so, but a prior airing of the attendant Long Live Père Ubu album prompted an initially lukewarm response from this listener.
Above: David Thomas performing with Pere Ubu at (le) Poisson Rouge. Photo by Ryan Muir.
The stage adaptation was commissioned for a 2008 performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, on London's South Bank. A month prior to this NYC gig, Pere Ubu had been touring the work in the UK. Thomas soon developed the habit of rewriting his script adaptation whilst out on the road. He was preserving its anarchic qualities, persistently tripping up the performers.
Nowadays, Thomas is a much less blobular being, bordering on the slimline. Shaven-headed, goateed and draped in a seedy-looking Mackintosh, Thomas was liberally swigging from a wine bottle, alternated with a hip-flask. Regardless of whether these vessels actually contained alcoholic beverages, and whether Thomas was swallowing, he was still performing a good impersonation of a tetchily challenging bandleader. He was veering wildly from impish humour to disciplinary snapping. Whether this was staged or 'true' is almost irrelevant, as the ratcheting of tension was conducive to rock'n'roll potency.
At times, the performance would disintegrate into guffaws, sniggers and general fluffing of lines. Again, this was genuinely amusing, contributing an air of subtle menace once the 'straight' dialogue resumed. There were elements of burlesque, or even a particularly perverse college play. Band members were co-opted as characters, with drummer Steve Mehlman garbed in a summer dress, relishing his femininity. Synthesizer and theremin man Robert Wheeler preferred to romp around the stage wearing a horse's head.
The Brothers Quay were responsible for an animated accompaniment, though this was a more static variant of their accustomed style: slow-moving, monochromed, and at times almost still-framed. The Thomas persona is so compulsive that it was always tempting to observe his antics rather than concentrate on the filmic backdrop. At one point he was lowered down onto the floor to deliver his lines from a horizontal perspective. At another, he opened his paedophile Mackintosh to reveal sickly green beams of radioactive light, emanating from devices that were strapped to his stomach.
The performance was peppered with songs from the album, becoming more effective through their musical isolation. Despite the entertainment qualities of the piece, your scribe couldn't staunch a rising bloodlust for rock'n'roll once "The Final Solution" geared in to launch a three-song encore. Thomas was whining in the classic mode. Mehlman was pounding with abandon, whilst guitarist Keith Moliné was exploding in close sonic approximation of the song's recorded version. Then they played "Over My Head" from the same album, followed by "Sad.txt," a song of sinister near-misogyny from 1998's Pennsylvania. Thomas is a marvelous anti-showman, and a brilliant raconteur, but the increasingly rare opportunity to hear him fronting his old rock'n'roll band needs to be savoured with intensity nowadays.