Pere Ubu @ ICA

Photo credit: Alexandre Horn 

Carnival of Sounds


I have been a fan of David Thomas and his several musical guises, in and out of Pere Ubu, for many years. But I had yet to experience him/them live, which finally occurred this atmospheric November afternoon at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Getting straight to the point, as if to reveal the band's meandering nature through sound, the first set was dedicated to a one-off improv session by the sextet. Apart from Thomas's characteristic vocals and the average rock band staples the ensemble included the eerie sound effects of a theremin, a fairly recently added clarinet, keyboards and electronics. Consistently unpredictable and adventurous, the set summed up pretty much what we already knew about the band: Whether they veer towards punk, retro soundtrack, musique concrete, experimental or avant garde, Pere Ubu remain restless throughout. Like Thomas himself admitted, the band is not as noisy as it used to be (see Thomas's first band, Rocket From the Tombs, or Pere Ubu's debut The Modern Dance), but it's hard to think how, despite the decades passed, they could sound any fresher or work with more integrity. Sound and performance-wise, usual stormy rock tactics have now been replaced by a sitting Thomas singing, eyes closed, right at the front. But, somehow, they still never lose their edge.

Part 2 was largely dedicated to the band's latest outing Carnival of Souls, a record i
David and Clyde ('Irene' video) 
Photo credit: Kiersty Boon
nspired, but definitely not limited to the retro cinematic vocabulary of the 60's black-and-white movie of the same name. From the fast, noisy and obsessive to the sophisticated and calculated, they constructed an intricate and highly engaging web of menacing traveling images (Road to Utah), soft female touches (Caroleen or Irene, from 2006's Why  I Hate Women and the Carnival respectively) and powerful rock riffs, spiced with Thomas's typically smart-arse comments and tantrums.

In fact, his final go at drummer Steven A. Mehlman was downright obnoxious: Storming out of his chair and shouting that Mehlman, with his wrong playing, is not "stealing from me, you're stealing from them!", he strangely got an applause from the audience. Personally, I found it was Thomas's attitude that was robbing me of my time, money and good spirits, stopping the gig every other song in order to discover who was to blame for the musical wrong-doings. A couple of "mistakes" (which, in within experimental band, are part of the journey and they were hardly perceived as it was) certainly don't justify such petty public treatment of a fellow musician - let alone the audience's applause. An audience, it seems, is always happy to indulgently devour any tantrums for the sake of a "good show", ignoring what is plainly right.

Behavioral shortcomings aside, there's nothing in a Pere Ubu show that can musically fall short. The sound is individual and thrilling and the musicians smart and fearless.
They are an infallible recipe for music that never loses the core of its existence