In the 40 years since they began their career, Pere Ubu have never been worried about making their audiences comfortable. Their music is harsh, their lyrics are often grotesque, and singer David Thomas has cultivated a voice that is unsettling to its very core.
But what is most discomfiting about Pere Ubu’s performance at Hotel Cecil is Thomas’s own obvious discomfort. There is no way to not acknowledge this: Thomas has trouble getting up the stairs to the stage, getting across the stage, getting settled on his stool. There is a chuckle in the audience as he repositions himself with the help of his bandmate, and as the music starts he spits back at the crowd, “I really appreciate you laughing at me, asshole.” And though there is fire and life in his retort, there is still a pall over the first part of the set.
Once Thomas is back in storytelling mode between songs, the mood in the room shifts back to the weird: Thomas intones that “…one out of two songs is about monkeys. I’m sure it makes some kind of sense, it makes sense to me,” before the band play “Monkey Bizness” followed by “Carnival.” Robert Wheeler, responsible for electronics and theremin, has what is either a toy ray gun hooked up to a contact mic for glitchy sound effects, or an instrument that looks remarkably like a toy ray gun hooked up to a contact mic (he seems delighted with it, whatever it is). Darryl Boon serves as a wonderful reminder that a clarinet can sound weird as fuck when taken out of context and is probably under-utilized by bands opting instead for more electronics.
It all strikes exactly the right tenor of the strange post-punk band that, despite a few pop tricks up their sleeves, is still just a strange post-punk band. But then there comes the awkwardness of the end of the show; it seems that, despite Thomas’s mobility issues and the stage not being optimally accessible, the convention of an encore is going to be met. And the crowd are appreciative, never halting their applause for a second until the band return and cheering anew when Thomas comes on stage a minute after the rest of the band starts up. It doesn’t seem like gratitude enough, though, for this unnecessary cruelty for what is ultimately only one song. But the band are to be admired and appreciated. Touring is hard on performers that are younger and more mobile. We should count ourselves lucky that Pere Ubu are still willing to do this.