“Like the Rolling Stones, we’re getting back to our club roots,” David Thomas, the lead singer and mastermind of Pere Ubu, said Saturday night (Sept. 22) during his band’s concert at the Empty Bottle. “As you know, tomorrow we begin a string of 17 sold-out shows at Soldier Field.”
Thomas was in a talkative and quite humorous mood. This was the first time I’ve seen him spend a concert sitting down, and Thomas, who’s 60, needed some assistance walking to the stage. But even though he was seated, Thomas was in a lively mood, whether he was bashing the Americana genre (describing a typical song about some guy eating a hamburger) or observing that “for every lady that comes to a Pere Ubu show, five others (guys) come. That’s just a fact.” He reminisced about the time Pere Ubu opened for Kool and the Gang in Denmark, when that band’s stage routine taught him the importance of acknowledging the “special ladies” in the crowd.
Before Pere Ubu took the stage, there was an opening performance billed as a set by Gagarin, a British keyboard player and electronic artist who’s a member of Pere Ubu. But Gagarin wasn’t actually present in the Empty Bottle. As Bill Meyer explained in his preview article for the Chicago Reader, Thomas refused to pay the fee that the American Federation of Musicians requires to vet the merits of visa applicants, so Pere Ubu’s British members (Gagarin and guitarist Keith Moliné) had their applications denied. So, during this opening set, Thomas came onto the stage and sang into a telephone receiver while music by Gagarin was piped in via Skype. For a few surreal minutes, a man with a chicken mask covering his head (I believe that was Pere Ubu synth/theremin player Robert Wheeler) came onto the stage and hovered near Thomas, like an apparition conjured by his brain.
During the main Pere Ubu set, Thomas was joined onstage by Wheeler, drummer Steve Mehlman, bassist Michele Temple and substitute guitarist Dave Cintron. The band’s lean, taut synth/guitar lines left space for Thomas’ distinctive voice, as Pere Ubu played old songs such as “Heaven,” “Vacuum in my Head” and “Goodnight Irene” as well as several selections from its strong new record Lady From Shanghai (the group’s 17th studio album in 35 years). The website for this album proclaims: “Smash the hegemony of dance. Stand Still. The dancer is puppet to the dance. It’s past time somebody puts and end to this abomination. Lady From Shanghai is an album of dance music fixed.”
Pere Ubu closed its set with an unabashedly commercial plea, singing a ditty that Thomas called the “march of mercy,” which encourage audience members to visit the merch table and buy stuff. I did just that, picking up the new album as well as a 100-page book that Thomas wrote about the making of Lady From Shanghai — a sort of extended set of liner notes called Chinese Whispers.
Pere Ubu played on a night with a lot of great concerts to choose from in Chicago; @pkmonaghan tweeted that Steve Earle, one of the other artists playing last night, “is a fucking American treasure.” True — and so is David Thomas, in his own odd way.