Pere Ubu
Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, March 19
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Historians have argued over the years about when and where exactly punk began. Of course, history is never that neat and tidy or that linear, and in truth, it seems there were “musicians” making various strains of Stooges and Velvet Underground derivations in many cities during the mid-70s. In Cleveland, there was a small cluster of weirdos divining unusual noises equally informed by VU, high and lowbrow art, and their industrial landscape. With no hope of any sort of monetary return on their efforts, most were short-lived. Pere Ubu, however, was not.

Though their line-up has rotated over the years and varying degrees of success have come and gone, led by the constant focal point of singer David Thomas, Pere Ubu has existed for more than 35 years. During that time, the band has consistently pushed forward, their sound mutating to wild degrees between avant garde and pop. As such, Thomas and his collaborators have never looked back, which has meant rarely playing songs from their “historical” era.

That changed last year when the band announced that they would be playing The Modern Dance, their debut full-length from 1978, in its entirety, as well as the singles that preceded it. Yet, in Ubu style, they would only be doing three such performances and not a full nostalgic tour as has become de rigueur these days. These shows took place in London, Chicago, and of course, Cleveland, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if the band never repeated the Modern Dance set again.

Fortunately, that was not the case, and I was able to make the trek from Brooklyn this past weekend to catch their warm-up to a European tour performing the album. Without getting too far ahead of myself, I’ll just say that Pere Ubu made the eight-hour drive entirely worth it. After an opening set by Scarcity of Tanks, the band, which for this show included original guitarist Tom Herman, began with “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” its first single which Thomas released on his Hearthan label in 1975. After they had finished, someone shouted, “We love you David!” to which the bemused and noticeably much thinner singer replied, “I appreciate that on a purely intellectual level.”

“Heart of Darkness” followed as did “Final Solution,” which is arguably in the upper echelon of songs ever recorded. But it was “My Dark Ages,” Pere Ubu’s third single from 1976, that was the most riveting, Thomas delivering its refrain of “I don’t get around and I don’t fall in love much” in his distinctive yowl. Next was the reggae-tinged “Heaven,” which, despite later attempts, is still the greatest pop song the band has ever written. Surprisingly, there was no “Cloud 149” before the band began The Modern Dance with “Non-Alignment Pact,” the cut’s racing guitar line and theremin squeals making for another of the night’s many high points.

But for that matter, there really weren’t low points to the performance. The title track, which Thomas explained is “talking about everybody but me,” bounded along its chugging bassline. “Street Waves,” which we were told was inspired by a window display at a tire store on W. 78th and Detroit, careened in furious stops and starts. Even the notoriously prickly Thomas looked like he was enjoying himself, and drummer Steve Mehlman jumped off stage during “Sentimental Journey” to clank actual bottles to replicate the song’s recorded version. And if it couldn’t get any better, after finishing the album, Pere Ubu returned to the stage for a four-song encore that included “Caligari’s Mirror” and the title track from The Modern Dance’s successor, Dub Housing. There’s something to be said for Pere Ubu’s policy of never living in the past, but when it sounds this good, there’s also plenty of merit in revisiting it.