Marcia and I caught the mighty Pere Ubu at Beat Kitchen in Chicago last night. They’ve been among my favorite bands since the ’70s, plying those sweet spots where experimental noisemaking, monster riffery and ace storytelling collide. Their front-man/mastermind David Thomas is a truly one-of-a-kind performer, and one of the very finest thinkers and writers about what it really means to rock. (Just forage around the Ubu Projex Protocols for a taste of his aggregated wisdom).
I interviewed Mr Thomas and late guitarist Jim Jones way back in 1996 when they’d issued an essential career retrospective box called Datapanik in the Year Zero, and then caught them live in New York City (with Wilson) on the subsequent tour. The band had gone through one of its periodic personnel reconfigurations at the point, so drummer Steve Mehlman, bassist Michele Temple and synthesist Robert Wheeler were the new members at that show. They’re all still onstage with Mr Thomas to this day, and they are a mighty tight force all these years on. The guitar position has bifurcated for this tour, with Gary Siperko on the electric six-string, and ex-Swans man Kristoff Hahn on pedal steel. It’s an interesting new sound for the band. (On their most excellent recent studio album, 20 Years In a Montana Missile Silo, the sextet actually becomes a nine-piece, with long-time guitarist Keith Moline, digital synthesist Gagarin, and clarinet man Darryl Boon).
Pere Ubu remain defiantly and delightfully anti-glamorous. Mr Thomas was out front having a smoke when we got to the club, while Wheeler and Mehlman were working the merch table. Peter Prescott (Mission of Burma) opened the show with his three piece band Minibeast, offering sort of a Can vibe of rock-steady drum and bass grooves topped with shouting, guitars, loops and samples. Loud and engaging. Beat Kitchen was a funky little bar/restaurant/club in the Roscoe Village neighborhood. We hadn’t been there before, and we liked it a lot as an intimate club space with good sound and sight lines. (Roscoe Village is actually one of the neighborhoods we’re considering for a move next summer, so nice to know there’s a good little neighborhood joint there).
The Ubu show was as tight and noisy (yeah, you can do those things at the same time, when you’re this good) as I would have hoped and expected. Mr Thomas remained seated throughout, noting that the original James Brown had to dance around, while the new James Brown (he would be Thomas) gets to sit down down. He and every one else on stage played it old school with scraps of paper and notes and music stands littering the stage, rather than the annoying iPads that seem to be propagating as musical props in our always on-screen era. Mr Thomas had a bottle of wine with him as well, using his teeth to pop the cork, drinking straight from the bottle like a pirate, commenting at one point that it was actually a pretty good wine, which people don’t normally give him. Good for whoever did so.
Mr Thomas was in very good voice throughout, and the band played an interesting, career spanning set, ranging from the seminal “Heart of Darkness” through to the pummeling “Monkey Bizness” on the new disc. A touching highlight of the show for us was the elegiacal “Cold Sweat:” Mr Thomas normally sings with his eyes closed and doesn’t really look out through the lights and into the crowd very often, but as he sang the lines “Thank you / You’ve been great and I really mean that /I love you so /Hold me close /I feel the time running away / I know you must feel it too”, he opened his eyes, reached out his arms, looked around the room, held the moment.
Ubu Projex have been communicating that this tour may be “last chance to see us on the East Coast” in recent social media promotions, so if this was an onstage farewell for Chicago, then I am hugely grateful that we got to see and hear it. A powerful and memorable show from an important and impressive band who really mean a lot to me on a whole lot of levels. Thanks for the rock and roll. Now move those big black boxes.