TVD Live: Pere Ubu
at the Rock and Roll
Hotel, 6/24

Since reactivating Pere Ubu in 1987 David Thomas and his cohorts have kept the focus consistently forward and in the process have accumulated one of rock’s more impressive discographies. In 2015 Fire Records began to collect Ubu’s early material into vinyl box sets, a smart maneuver helping to introduce those canonical works to a younger audience. The Coed Jail! tour finds Ubu’s current lineup tackling selections from 1975-1982, and on June 24 they brought the avant-garage to Washington, DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel with inspired precision.

As one of the busier active veteran units there was really little worry Pere Ubu’s live excursion into the back catalogue would be tentative or out-of-sync. Furthermore, as their generous yet efficient set unfurled from inside the intimate environs of the Rock and Roll Hotel, the assurances that Coed Jail! was something other than a mere greatest hits tour proved right on the money. Instead, the tour sheds contemporary light upon an era of enduring relevance, with Ubu conjuring a wild, utterly human sound.

The evening began with a short and loose appearance by Cleveland’s Obnox. Featuring ex-Bassholes and This Moment in Black History drummer Lamont “Bim” Thomas, for this current endeavor he plays guitar, sings, and in a maneuver sure to catch a few newcomers off guard, raps over a foundation of looped amp noise and live drums.

The majority of Obnox’s set, which found the duo joined on a pair of occasions by Ubu drummer Steve Mehlman, was raw, bluesy garage punk likely to please fans of assorted acts on the In the Red label. Plus, the non-gimmicky dives into hip hop actually brought to mind the merger of white hickdom and urban blackness found in Thomas’ Bassholes associate Don Howland’s work in The Gibson Bros. However, the execution was quite different as Thomas evinced a real talent for rapping.

The impulse for stylistic hybridization nicely complemented Ubu’s pioneering spirit. David Thomas, Steve Mehlman, Robert Wheeler on synth and homemade Theremin, Michele Temple on bass, and Gary Siperko on guitar hit the stage promptly at nine; the presence of the leader and sole constant member was immediately striking as he carefully mounted the stage with the assistance of a large wooden cane.

Amongst the hoariest of clichés is the one concerning the artist’s unfettered need to create, i.e. “they just have to do it.” It’s a concept dripping with idealized notions over the impulse to make art, but Thomas’ entrance did lend a bit of credence to the idea, thankfully without an aura of calculation; as he took his seat he appeared determined but not jovial, and right from a prologue concerning the winding tributary of his hometown it became clear there would be no ersatz “how’s everybody doing tonight” sincerity.

Poetically connected to the Cuyahoga, “Heart of Darkness” opened; predating Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it’s arguably the more effective and undeniably more succinct work springboarding from Conrad’s troubling text, and the rendering here was easily up to the song’s considerable reputation. But as stated, Coed Jail! is not a greatest hits tour, the tight 90-minute set delivering no “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” no “Life Stinks” and no “Non-Alignment Pact,” Ubu’s punkish angles largely passed over as Thomas performed from a seated position throughout.

This is not to imply the more popular stuff was perversely ignored. To the contrary, the show was peppered with surefire crowd-pleasers, e.g. “The Real World,” “The Modern Dance,” “Navvy,” “The Fabulous Sequel,” and “Caligari’s Mirror.” The poppish tones of “Heaven” made an exquisite late appearance and contrasted sharply with “Sentimental Journey”; “Final Solution” opened the short encore.

Mehlman, Temple, and Wheeler have been part of the Ubu scenario since the ’90s, but they avoided the pitfall of coasting in execution; all three were a joy to watch, especially Wheeler as he squeezed sounds from his electronic rig. Newcomer Siperko (from the recent lineup of Rocket from the Tombs that includes Obnox’s Thomas) fit into the equation without a hitch and particularly excelled during “Final Solution.”

If Thomas refused to partake in the tired rituals of crowd interaction he did hover between meditative and effusive. Ruminating upon Ubu’s essence prior to “Rounder,” he made the second reference of the night to the Velvet Underground touring Texas in 1967, this time adding a fictitious anecdote of the VU hooking up with Jr. Walker & the All-Stars at their hotel; stretching the fable, both groups attended a show by George Clinton.

Driving home eastbound on Rt. 66 still high from Ubu’s brilliance, an NPR reporter informed me that Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell had died; having been detached from social media for nearly the whole day, it was the first I’d heard. After feeling briefly beleaguered by the high rate of notable deaths in 2016 I wondered if Thomas’ comments had been inspired by the news. Maybe so, but I savored the possibility of coincidence. The uncertainty lingered as a fitting denouement to a remarkable night.

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