Cleveland is a town with a long history of spawning important and wildly disparate acts. Devo, the O’Jays, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails and the James Gang all emerged from here in one way or another, but no group ever seemed so organically rooted in the Sixth City’s industrial and post-industrial character as Pere Ubu. In its first hometown show since the release of 14th album Lady From Shanghai, David Thomas and Co. laid down a set heavy on material from the new record, with a few canonical numbers thrown in for the long-term fans. And if Thomas’ stage presence is so distant it’s sometimes like he’s not in the same room with the audience, the evening was loud and weird and energetic enough to honor the band’s history. Even his personal coolness seemed about right for the occasion; he remained seated for the entire show, warbling into his microphone, sometimes into a repurposed rotary phone handset, and nodding his head, eyes closed, as if he couldn’t have cared whether anyone showed up or not. Which, when you think about it, is about as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets.
Thomas has always been less a traditional frontman than an artistic director, shaping the sound and experience in a way that feels more controlling than spontaneous. All of which is to say that he’s “chilly” onstage compared only to an opening act of a more recognizable pop-music model, like This Moment In Black History, the Cleveland punk quartet whose early, sweat-slinging set slowly raised the energy level in the room until the stagefront was crowded and jittering in time to the band’s high-decibel performance. TMIBH singer/keyboardist Christopher Kulscar chided the crowd at the outset for hanging in the back of the smallish standing area—“You’re all back there on the grassy knoll!”—but as the band’s set unwound, and as Kulscar pogoed, jumped and high-stepped around his tiny Realistic synth with the low-end bass and drum rumble piling up throughout the room, the crowd slowly hooked into the volume and noise. Following the set, TMIBH left the stage to interact with the crowd in the Ballroom’s side bar and sit-down food service area, before the next act came up.
A word about the Beachland: Though it celebrates its 13th anniversary this year as a live music venue, the building’s been around since 1950, when it began life as Cleveland’s Croatian Liberty Home. This is a no-frills space with a smaller side stage (the Beachland Tavern) and a central performance area (the Ballroom) resembling the combination gym/auditorium in a medium-sized junior high school. There’s no bad place to stand, because when you’re inside the Ballroom, you’re standing more or less directly in front of the floor’s speaker rig no matter where you position yourself.
And that’s where we all were when Thomas appeared without announcement to play the second opening set as Gagarin, a laptop-noise-and-video-projection act, during which he intoned and declaimed into the aforementioned telephone handset. Gagarin is credited separately with providing various keyboards on Pere Ubu’s Lady From Shanghai, but tonight’s set was all Thomas frazzling and shouting into the receiver as if he were sending out radio updates from Venus. At one point a colleague in a rubber full-head rooster mask emerged onstage to Thomas’ left, to deliver him a small glass of brown spirits, moving slowly and striking minimalist interpretive dance poses, after which he left at the same pace he’d (eventually) arrived. It all seemed to make sense at the time—self-consciously artsy, a little mannered, but somehow absurd enough to keep from seeming precious. After a second short pause, Pere Ubu took the stage for a performance with very little air between the songs.
Pere Ubu’s current lineup is a five-piece—guitar, bass, drums, keyboard/theremin and voice—and you got the feeling early on that this is an incarnation of the band that has its internal responsibilities sharply assigned. As a group, even after several iterations, Pere Ubu has always been about music over stage presence, and although for much of his life, Thomas was a sizeable frontman, even in the band’s earliest days he always seemed to want to get out of the way of the music, or maybe to disappear himself inside it. Now, having just turned 60, Thomas is a smaller physical presence, and he moves with the precise, deliberate motions of a man who once carried that music on a taller, broader frame. Thomas positioned himself dead center onstage, flanked by band members from his own generation and the one that followed him (drummer Steven Mehlman, born in 1971, is currently the youngster of the group), and led his bandmates through the new record, which is as catchily peculiar as Pere Ubu’s always been. “Musicians Are Scum,” “Mandy” (with its clipped, hiccuppy refrain “Won’t-cha-come-out-to-plaaaaaay”) and the ominous “414 Seconds” were standout renditions, and though the crowd seemed equally split between those familiar with the new record and those who kept their radar on for the opening bass run of “The Modern Dance,” the entire set was received with respectful enthusiasm and gratitude.
Most of the audience response seemed quite beyond Thomas’ notice, though he did smile once or twice and even told a couple of very short stories about playing festivals with funk bands in Europe, during which he noted that drawing “the lay-deeeez” to shows was “ve-reh, ve-rehim-paw-tent” to a working band, as fanboys tend only to attract other fanboys. Still, it all sounded rather more good-natured than it probably appears in cold type, since Thomas has often described Pere Ubu as the longest-lived failure of a rock band in pop-music history. Somehow, despite locking into a sound that’s as high-art as that sort of thing comes in rock, the band’s enjoyed a shelf life longer than most groups even remotely similar in approach, of which there are admittedly very few.
And yes, toward the end of the evening, Pere Ubu played “The Modern Dance,” which is among the three or four songs most central to the band’s catalog, and a fine, raucous rendition it was. They also turned in “Misery Goats” and “Final Solution,” at which point the crowd, as they say, went wild. “And now,” Thomas said, “we come to my favorite part of the show: the end.” Thomas and Mehlman retired to the merch table, which Mehlman had been staffing pre-show, and spoke briefly with old Cleveland fans. But soon enough Thomas had done his due post-show diligence, and announced as much, rising from the table and retreating into the depths of the venue.
Outside on Waterloo Road, heavy street construction had chewed up an entire lane of blacktop as far as the eye could see in both directions. This wasn’t any simple pothole-patching or curbside refinement. Piles of gravel and broken asphalt mounded the street and encroached on the walkways, reducing what is ordinarily the Beachland Ballroom’s adjacent sidewalk and street to a zigzagging path of dirt and rock fragments constrained by orange barrels and yellow caution tape. For a longtime Pere Ubu fan, this was somehow the most perfect detail of the night: A band that emerged from the exhausted, broken detritus of the Rust Belt, and somehow converted those fragments into a fractured, dreamy sound that’s still utterly unique in American rock music, played a fine loud show, and then disappeared without saying goodbye into the Cleveland rubble. After a time, so did we.