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Pere UbuPere Ubu
ICA, London
Friday September 25 2008

 

 

 

 

When a gig takes place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, you can take it as a given that the worlds of art and rock 'n' roll will be in collision.

But then, that's what Pere Ubu have been doing since the band emerged from the murky underbelly of Cleveland, Ohio, in the mid-seventies. With an 'art' sensibility that ensured the band would never be just another bunch of rock 'n' rollers (or, it must be said, ever become megastars), Pere Ubu have spent over 30 years making interestingly weird noises, sometimes disguised as pop songs and sometimes not.

Tonight's show is something of a departure even for the godfathers of interestingly weird. For one night only, it's Pere Ubu - the musical. Yes, really. The band have conjured up their own musical version of Alfred Jarry's proto-absurdist play Ubu Roi, from which the band took their name. Retitled Bring Me The Head Of Père Ubu, sprinkled liberally with songs and musical interludes, it's not quite South Pacific - but it's certainly not a normal rock gig, either.

Pere UbuIn costumes that reveal a genius for improvisation and a minimal budget, Pere Ubu take the stage. The band is shunted over to one side, opening up a wide empty space for the theatrical stuff...and a decent sightline for the big screen. In the absence of any actual props, the scenes are set tonight by a sequence of not-quite-abstract images created by filmmakers The Brothers Quay, while silent movie-style captions let us know where we are - the palace of King Venceslas, caves in the hills, sundry battlefields. The images are visual cues for the audience's imagination. Fill in the gaps inside your head. Why should the people on stage do all the work?

The play's the thing, and this play is a tale of a scheming courtier to a king - a kind of Peter Mandelson type with a bad attitude turned up to eleven - his attempts to grab the throne for himself, and the absurdities and chaos that follow. Pere Ubu vocalist David Thomas takes the title role, a one-man maelstrom of indigestion and frowning. He glooms about the stage like a raincloud in his raincoat. For Père Ubu is not a sympathetic character. He's not an antihero. He's not even a loveable rogue. He's a glowering presence, a cantankerous old bugger. It's the role David Thomas was born to play.

Alas for Père Ubu, his wife and consort cannot be with us tonight. Sarah Jane Morris, who was to have played Mère Ubu, is ill and absent, so her character is represented by a cardboard box, and David Thomas speaks her lines. This lends an extra layer of surrealism to an event that already requires a vertiginous suspension of disbelief, but hey, nobody's scared of heights in here.

Pere UbuSongs erupt into the proceedings, bursts of caterwauling scrape-and-bash. Musically, it's all very, very Pere Ubu - there's no mistaking the clattering gone-wrong garage-band racket of Pere Ubu in full flight. Robert Wheeler's theremin wails like wisps of mist drifting across the battlefield - yes, there are battle scenes, with entire armies represented by single members of the band - while David Thomas is on fine techy form, griping and keening in that marvellous wail of a voice.

There are bursts of baffling theatricality (I never did get to figure out what the giant chicken was all about) and unplanned hiccups in the flow, not least because the Père Ubu character is plagued by indigestion, but also because David Thomas refreshes himself a touch too much from a hip flask as the show progresses. We may be in the art zone tonight, but there's still a bit of rock 'n' roll behaviour going on. The result is that as a piece of musical theatre, this is closer to a gig than perhaps the band intended - but as an extravaganza of Ubu-esque odd art, it's a fine experience. Levels of interesting weirdness have been maintained.

 

Essential
links:

Pere Ubu:
Website
MySpace

ICA:
Website

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

 

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  Page credits: Review, photos and construction by Michael Johnson.
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