Via Chicago, a sign that pop culture isn’t entirely in the dustbin—more people paid to see Pere Ubu at the Abbey Pub than did for the K Federline show two weeks prior at the House of Blues. This is a good thing. Pere Ubu and its various members were punks before punk had a name; in the mid-‘70s they splintered out of Cleveland cult act Rocket From the Tombs, which also included future members of the Dead Boys. Throughout its career, the group has been led – and in many ways, defined – by cumbersome lead singer David Thomas, whose gruff caterwauls characterize the band’s abrasive, uneasily-categorized sound.
So the fact that the Abbey Pub was packed for a band with a career seemingly focused on shunning the very people who seemed to make up the crowd (frat boys, part-time punks, etc.) seemed strange. The show got off to a smart start with Chicago homeboys Mahjongg, whose recent signing to K Records finds them expanding on the frenetic, tin-can punk-funk premiered on the fantastically-underrated debut album, Raydoncong 2005. On stage, the foursome switched off between an odd assortment of instruments—besides guitar, bass and drums, there were loose percussion instruments, a laptop, keyboards and heaps of wires. Mahjongg’s new material has grown denser, driven by Afrobeat-informed drums, gang-chant vocals and bleeding synths straight out of a Peter Gabriel album. A few technical difficulties marred the between-song flow, but overall, it was a proper warm-up for what was to come.
Pere Ubu began, playing a few bars before Thomas slowly made his approach to the front of the stage, resembling a mournful Southern preacher, or perhaps just a horror movie’s anti-hero, one prone to cutting up those who get too close. Although the legendary rock outfit reeks of punk-rock respectability, it’s obviously not something that Thomas and Co. feel necessary to indulge in, and appropriately, the set wasn’t a nostalgia trip. New album tracks such as “Love Song” and “Caroleen” sounded even darker and more urgent than on record (Why I Hate Women), and Robert Wheeler’s moog and theremin parts echoed brightly throughout an otherwise-dark bar.
Throughout the set (and between swigs out of a mysterious black container resembling a bottle of motor oil), Thomas kept up an ongoing joke about encounters with celebrity musicians (Ani DiFranco, Henry Rollins, Frank Black). The imposing front man even claimed Sting once queried, “I dig your band, but why can’t you write more songs about rainforests?” To which Thomas curmudgeonly replied, “We write songs about men and women trapped in the dark mist of smoky bars.” Thomas’ grumbly sense of humor was then confirmed, as the band launched into a new song, “Two Girls (One Bar).”
After a moment off stage, the band reentered for an obligatory encore, which included two of its oldest songs, “Final Solution” and “Street Waves.” During the instrumental breakdown of the latter, Thomas confided, “This is my favorite part of the show – the end.” From an icon of such particular disposition, that’s as much of a, “Thanks, you guys were great,” as any audience will likely see from the man.