Pere Ubu/Variety Lights – Fibbers, York, 16th April 2013
David Thomas may have shed some pounds, but thankfully not his skin. After all this time he is still operating in the twilight zone of progressive avant-rock music; out there in a parallel universe where there is only white light and the sky is never blue. The one constant therein, he drives Pere Ubu on towards their fortieth year on whatever planet they may now exist. He is the Godfather of the Weird and enjoys his status as a true visionary and older statesman of expressionism on the outer limits of might be very loosely be called rock n roll. He seems less enamoured by the fact that despite such critical acclaim and some seventeen albums down the line his pioneering spirit still bears little commercial fruit.
Despite the weight loss and his skulking around for the entire performance in a small circumference of space between the microphone and a hard-backed chair, David Thomas still consumes the entire stage. He is a huge, overwhelming and overbearing man, periodically taking time out to berate his musicians for perceived errors when they fail to properly align themselves with the sounds inside his mind. At one point he chastises his electronicist and mixer Gagarin like some guilty schoolboy, making him repeat Feuksley Ma'am, The Hearing’s synthetic coda of Thomas Edison reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb” until he had got it right. There may be smiles but it is difficult to know if he is joking.
But it is the exercising of such power and control which surely makes him the man that he is as he leads the current incarnation of Pere Ubu across the span of the band’s discography. The Modern Dance’s title song, with its edgy, dislocated rhythm defying you not to lapse into involuntary spasms, still sounds as dangerous and frantic as it first did in 1977. Vacuum In My Head, with its air of surrealism and otherworldliness, is just as disturbing. They contain fractured kernels of sound that splinter around Thomas’s piercing yowl, as he hunches over the mic, eyes closed and transported to some other time and place only coming back to embark upon yet more between-song-banter where he has anyone from Jimmy Somerville to Jon Bon Jovi in the cross-hairs of his ironic observations upon human behaviour. It makes for inspired theatre as he juxtaposes this comic routine with the greater experimentation of earlier works like Breath and Misery Goats and the occasionally more conventional rock structures of the material from the most recent album Lady From Shanghai.
Billed as the Lady From Shanghai tour, the intermittence of Thomas’s brooding, malevolent demeanour owes far more to Orson Welles’ character Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil than ever it does another of his films which gives Pere Ubu’s seventeenth album its name. As the band play out their second and final encore he finally sits becalmed behind the merchandise table. As I reach out to thank him for a magnificent set the cold porcelain texture of his hand as it shook mine is in strangely perfect keeping with the fact that what may have just happened wasn’t quite entirely real.
What by then seemed a lifetime ago had already seen us bear witness to the return to these shores after an eighteen year hiatus of the former Mercury Rev founding member David Baker. In a bizarre moment which lit the touch paper of all that followed, as he came on stage he was mistaken for Thomas by a woman in the crowd who approached him for his autograph. A bemused but benign Baker sidestepped that moment and early sound problems to lead Variety Lights, his band of sonic adventurers including Swervedriver/Bolts of Melody guitarist Adam Franklin, through an epic sandstorm of space-infused rock which used early Hawkwind and Tangerine Dream as its reference points but ending up charting a cosmic journey all of its own. His humble reflections to us at the evening’s end created a beautiful afterglow to what had been a remarkably inspiring and inspired experience.