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Pere Ubu / Variety LightsPere Ubu
Variety Lights
Bush Hall, London
Tuesday April 23 2013


The lead singer of Variety Lights must be the most un-rock rock star I've ever seen, and believe me I've seen a few incongruous ones in my time.

Portly and bashful, apparently befuddled to find himself here, on stage, fronting a band, playing a gig, he's nevertheless determined to make the best of it.

The band generate a moody swirl of art-rock ambience and rhythm, keening vocals wafting over the top like winter wind. It must be said the overall feel isn't a million miles from the racket kicked up by Pere Ubu themselves.

That's a slight surprise, since Variety Lights apparently contain ex-members of Mercury Rev and Swervedriver, bands who certainly managed to carve out their own respective niches. And yet it's definitely a case of the pupils and the masters here, I think.

Well, now. Here come the masters. David Thomas, Pere Ubu's frontman and all-round main man, wrote the book on being an un-rock rock star years ago. He cuts a scruffy, professorial figure, an eccentric pedagogue, looming at the microphone in microscopic spectacles, a Captain Sensible beret on his head. The Prof, intent on telling his students exactly the way it is.

It's interesting to note how his on-stage persona has changed over the years: from the herky-jerky, ever-gesticulating, fidgety geek-rocker of the past to today's head of the conceptual art department.

And a Pere Ubu gig these days is indeed rather like an illustrated lecture on art, life, and matters arising. David Thomas embarks upon humourous monologues between songs, based on the premise that we are all living in an alternative reality, and Pere Ubu provide the only link with the real world.

A real world in which tonight's gig is the band's invitation-only back-to-the-roots show, before Enormodome-status superstars Pere Ubu start their seventeen week stint at Wembley Stadium. Well, that sounds like my kind of real world. I wonder if I can swap it for the one I've got?

And then its straight into the bounding, twitchy, 'Love Love Love', one of the band's energy-burst poptastic moments from that period in the late 80s when Pere Ubu discovered an unlikely commercial streak and almost, but not quite, became pop stars. They never made it to the stadium circuit, but for a momet there it looked like they might - and, in the heady rush of 'Love, Love, Love' you can see how it could've happened.

The song is something of a red herring, though. Much of tonight's set is based around the band's new album, Lady From Shanghai - Pere Ubu at their most uncompromisingly wayward - and other excursions into the unpoptastic end of the band's catalogue. And yet, the new, and defiantly left-field song 'Mandy' has a hypnotic sway to it, the vocal a querulous croon over a striding bassline, buffeted by the theremin's atmospherics and the clarinet's nimble counter-melodies. Yes, theremin and clarinet. Verily we are a long way from stadium rock tonight.

Pere Ubu'Vacuum Cleaner In My Head' is all drift and jerk and wailing electronics, David Thomas singing as if he's got a vacuum cleaner, if not in his head, then definitely down his trachea.

'Breath', another song from the almost-commercial period, but tonight sounding like the avant-garde anthem it always secretly was, has a swooning, to-and-fro sway. Steve Mehlman, on drums - who I suspect would quite like to have a lot more rockers in the set than there are tonight - gives the snare drum some serious welly every time the off-beat comes around.

There's the extended dreamscape narrative of '414 Seconds', and the strange, colied-tight package of sweeping atmospherics and bass-whumps, the fretful wail of the vocal, the oddly isolated beats - Steve Mehlman again making the most of every thwack. This is Pere Ubu at their most difficult, in many ways. But also at their most strange and brilliant.

Along the way, David Thomas uses his between-song lectures to take issue with his critics. Apparently a reviewer has characterised him as 'brooding and malevolent.' "Does anybody here really think that describes me?" he asks the audience - who cheer enthusiastically: "Yes!" "You're all sons of bitches," remarks the professor, disappointed in his wayward students.

And indeed, David Thomas might have his cantankerous moments. Sometimes he might even brood - for a moment or two, on some of the more moodily downbeat songs. But malevolent? C'mon. Not the Prof of Pere Ubu.


Pere Ubu: Website | Facebook

Variety Lights: Website | Facebook

For more photos from this gig, find Pere Ubu by name here.

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