TVD Live: Pere Ubu
and Johnny Dowd at
Hill Country Live, 11/9

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | Pere Ubu as a band predated the American punk explosion, which nonetheless gave context to its fierce, bare-boned recordings. And though it remained associated with the explosion of bands at that time, Pere Ubu the band always seemed more an extension of the kind of outsider, rough-edged cadre of blues shouters, poets, and hipsters that grew from jazz and blues to the Beat poets, with its only remaining figure David Thomas continuing in the tradition of  Lord Buckley, Captain Beefheart, or Tom Waits, shouting out observation and complaints amid keening choruses done in his unique style.

That Pere Ubu is still around at all by now, nearly 40 years after groundbreaking early albums like The Modern Dance and Dub Housing, is kind of a gift; that it continues to record such consistently strong material, on 2014’s Carnival of Souls and the new 20 Years in a Montana Missile Silo, is almost a miracle.

It comes on the weary shoulders of frontman David Thomas, who in his black hat and cane, presents himself as a somewhat menacing figure. At the Hill Country BBQ in Washington Thursday, he could be seen standing outside the restaurant in the rain before the show, scowling like a gargoyle.

Five musicians were already at work when he found his way to the stage slowly, plopping down on a chair and leaning into a well-lit music stand holding his lyrics. He’d put on his reading glasses and began, with a voice unlike most in music—the kind of squeal of a wounded animal who’d been prodded too much.

The approach worked because he had a really solid band behind him. It began with the stinging guitar of Gary Siperko, able to carve out surf to funky chords. Longtime bassist Michele Temple worked well with hard-hitting drummer Steven A. Mehlman. The whole sound was sweetened by the experimental flourishes of Kristoph Hahn of The Swans on pedal steel guitar, and especially Robert Wheeler, working both an old ElectroComp 101 synthesizer, looking like an old telephone switchboard, as well as a theremin. Not only did it add interesting electronic texture to the sounds, it also provided the unusual sight of Wheeler playing an instrument as if he were doing tai-chi.

Together, their sound was inventive, but also very open. Not a loud sludge, but with spaces in between to let Thomas’ voice through. Still, it may not have been entirely what the bandleader wanted, so he paused to start songs over, berate musicians, and end more than one song with a curse that it wasn’t what it could have been.

“Play hard! Like you mean it!” he shouted from his perch. “Bunch of damn girl scouts.”Later he shouted to them mid-song: “Control! Control!” He’d berate Siperko for the temerity of tuning or just settle into depression: “Oh hell. I don’t even care about this any more.” The crowd remained silent, unsure exactly how to respond. It’s good to seek the best out of your musicians, but it was nothing but uncomfortable to witness this kind of verbal abuse in public. It could be part of his persona, owing back to the absurdist leanings of French symbolist Alfred Jarry, whose play lent the band its name in the first place.

He tried to temper the anger at points, saying, after all, “I am a highly paid artiste. I’m not even a legend—I’m a myth.” He said he had to sit (and walk with a cane) because his knees went; unlike James Brown, he didn’t wear kneepads for stage work). And he stressed the topics of the recent songs in the repertoire, “We’re all about monkeys and carnivals.”

In the end, the music won—a rare jolt of avant, freewheeling yet precise rock surrounding this authentic, still quite angry voice. It was like a time I saw Charles Bukowski, drunkenly weeping over a very personal poem he was reading and lashing out at having to do so in front of a college audience.

The show was about as well matched with an opening act as you could imagine—the rare appearance in these parts of Johnny Dowd, an authentic outsider voice in his own right, doing his own idiosyncratic  thing.

Raised in Texas and Oklahoma, living for decades in Ithaca, NY, he’s created a bunch of weird spoken word, warped country, and neo-blues recordings that have lately been accompanied by the incongruous sounds of a drum machine. Like Jim White (with whom he once formed a band a decade ago, Hellwood), he blends absurdist spoken word poetry and unexpected music for something that like Ubu, is in the tradition of Beat poets, jazz hipsters, and street corner savants.

Rather than being menacing as Thomas was capable of being, Dowd, 69, was goodnatured and laughed along with the absurdity, allowing his guitarist Mike Edmondson to begin with an a cappella Joe Walsh, “Life’s Been Good” (when clearly his life as a rock figure has been something else) before the sudden jolt of “I Crawled Up the Rat’s Ass.”

As in the handmade poetry books he sold on site, he could come up with sharp lines that stood out. He pretended to be a funk god as “The White Dolomite,” and deconstructed “Freddy’s Dead” for his own purposes. He and Edmondson almost seemed more interested in telling the dumb jokes between songs.

They even made fun of the hopelessly dated disco-era drum machine that backed most of the songs, suggesting we “give the drummer some.” But they won over the crowd enough to have them sing along to “I love the bright lights of Washington, DC; I wanna be a star like Conway Twitty.”

He ended the semi-sincere a cappella of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” before rocking out with a version of it, encouraging a gesture that  contrasted mightily with the headliner’s scowl.

JOHNNY DOWD

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