Monday, September 9, 2013

Pere Ubu at Mercy Lounge, 9/8/13

Posted By on Mon, Sep 9, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Sunday night's show at Mercy Lounge was The Spin's first time seeing Pere Ubu live, and we were prepared for the band to be slightly less cool than they were in the '70s, when they produced some of the most otherworldly punk rock around. We needn't have worried. The band's riff-driven garage/weirdo rock sounded tight and propulsive, and just as arty, anxious and abrasive as we could have hoped.

One thing we should have been prepared for was just how punctual frontman David Thomas and his crew would be. We arrived around 9 p.m., having already missed opener Gagarin, a collaboration between Thomas and London electronic musician Graham Dowdall. Dowdall was denied a visa to join the US tour, and had to join Thomas via Internet projection. It sounds like a genuinely unique rock experience, and we're sorry not to have seen it.

Ubu opened with the 1989 single “Love, Love, Love”; the one-and-a-half-hour set mixed classic '70s material with '80s and '90s deep cuts and songs from their new album Lady From Shanghai. As he typically does, Thomas delivered vocals from a chair, equipped with a binder of lyrics and a flask full of an unidentified beverage.

Rock fans are accustomed to guitar feedback noise; Ubu augments this with a creative assortment of synth sounds, including squiggles, clanks, squeaky-wheel sounds, bassy rumbles and staticky roars. These are provide by multi-instrumentalist Robert Wheeler, playing a homemade theremin, an EML-101 synthesizer and an iPad equipped with IMS 20 software. The sounds form a fitting accompaniment to Thomas's curiously high-pitched warble and are balanced by an awesomely loud and tight rhythm section. Steve Mehlman's drums were ferocious; Michele Temple's catchy bass lines could be heard from the parking lot.

The audience was clearly charmed by Thomas' between-song banter. His onstage persona suggests a funny, acerbic dad: “I don't see why I should thank you for applauding us. What have I got to thank you for?” “I always wanted to be Jon Bon Jovi. You laugh — no, no. If I had been much thinner and had a better chest situation — I can do all that stuff.” Breaking into a brief rendition of “Slippery When Wet,” he continued, “I probably could have been a better Jon Bon Jovi than Jon Bon Jovi was.”

The performance reminded us of just how many great songs are in Ubu's 35-year catalog. The uneasy, seasick surf rock of “The Modern Dance” featured blasts of synth fuzz; the off-kilter funk of “Misery Goats” was enhanced by cartoony theremin squeals; “414 Seconds” is a post-punk number with eerie, angular guitar lines. “The Road Trip of Bipasha Ahmed” sounded moody and noirish — Thomas sang into a telephone handset that produced a compressed vocal squawk. With its impeccably catchy melody, “Goodnite Irene” could be a Top 40 hit from a parallel universe.

The moderately sized crowd — which skewed toward guys in black T-shirts and glasses — was rocking out with unfeigned abandon. Although Ubu's latest record exhorts the listener to “Smash the Hegemony of Dance. Stand Still,” these fans engaged in more rhythmic physical movement than we see at most Nashville shows. And the fans were downright overjoyed when Ubu returned to the stage for a greatest-hits encore that included “Heaven” and the menacing “Final Solution” (featuring guitar-god solos by Dave Cintron).

The show was nearing its end, but “we have so much more in stock for you. After this last song we're going to sell you merchandise!” The final number was one Thomas claimed to have written to placate an old girlfriend, who mistakenly believed an earlier song was about her: “'No, I wrote that one for the other one, the one before you!” After this forthrightness was poorly received, he presented her with “Street Waves”: “'I was passing a stack of used tires on West 74th, and I thought of you.'”

After the show, Thomas & Co. sat on the stage to sell stuff and hold court with starstruck fans. It was an intimate evening that only increased our reverence for Pere Ubu. And if it didn't draw an arena-sized crowd, it's not their fault. It's Chris Isaak's. On learning that the “Wicked Game” singer was playing a show the same night, Mehlman exclaimed, “So that's where our fuckin' audience went!”

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Slideshow
Pere Ubu w/Gagarin at Mercy Lounge, 9/8/13

Pere Ubu w/Gagarin at Mercy Lounge, 9/8/13

By Diana Lee Zadlo

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