Pere Ubu at Slim's, by SarahJayn Kemp
Pere Ubu (photo: SarahJayn Kemp)

Leave it to a couple of nice boys from the Midwest to draw a crowd on a weeknight: Pere Ubu, fronted by legendary eccentric and sole original band member David Thomas, pulled in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd last Tuesday, December 6, 2016, at Slim’s. Audience members ranged greatly from the over-the-hill set staying up past their bedtime to wet-behind-the-ear youngsters reveling in their boundless energy.

Musical artist Obnox served as the only opening act. No one could have constructed a better warm-up than guitar-playing, fast-talking frontman Nox and his metronomic, yet mute, drummer. Carrying the uneasy charm of an art house band and the listenability of a post-punk pop band, Obnox was both charming and alarming. “All I like to do is yell at people with distortion,” Nox addressed the crowd.

Obnox’s sound is not unique on the level of Pere Ubu — a fact for which I think even the most die-hard Pere Ubu fans in the audience would be grateful. Whatever magical, mystical factor Pere Ubu wraps themselves and everyone that listens to them up in can only truly retain its potency if administered in measured doses. However, the spirit of the music seemed to be derived from the same weird well that springs forth art rock. Commentary between songs was laced with politics, poetry, and punchlines. It was truly a renaissance performance.

There was no question as to who the crowd was there to see, though. Entering the stage with all the quickness and grace of the urRu in The Dark Crystal, David Thomas lumbered on his cane and staggered to a chair. A bottle of red wine at his side, Thomas rested his cane on his music stand and addressed the crowd: “When James Brown went to jail, I felt a spirit enter me. I’m the new James Brown and the new James Brown doesn’t need to stand up; he can sit.”

Only Thomas could make taking a load off for the entirety of the concert seem so cool.

At times, he seemed to be speaking incoherently, muttering to himself like an awkward old man shuffling his way down city sidewalks. However, his eyes would occasionally flash and you’d realize he was talking to you all along. If fact, he hadn’t just been talking to you — he’d been telling some larger truth about the universe.

If you’ve followed Pere Ubu over the years, you’d know that, while Thomas has been the only consistent member of the band, his persona has shifted slightly but often — mystic oracle one minute, weary traveler the next. His latest role seems to be playing the wise, old, underappreciated man. This grandfatherly mask is a sharp contrast to Pere Ubu’s turn-it-up punk tunes that crackle with jazz and funk flair.

Stories and songs blended seamlessly. Pere Ubu’s band members were such skilled followers of Thomas. They reacted to every gesture flawlessly. Thomas is definitely the ringleader, but his supporting circus is so well-run that it’s easy to focus center ring. In most bands, the bells and whistles of Pere Ubu’s sound would come off as a mocking afterthought — a joke. However, each piece of the purposeful noise Pere Ubu produces is so well thought out that the convergence of elements is positively orchestral. The very fact that they manage to incorporate a theremin into the mix without it being obnoxious or obtuse speaks volumes.

It may seem like a lot of things are going wrong these days, but Pere Ubu gives me hope. If Thomas can sustain the longevity of this beautiful pet project, I think I can do my part to preserve the chaos, too.

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