David Thomas, Brighton, UK, June 14, 2024 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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David Thomas

David Thomas, Pere Ubu

David Thomas, Brighton, UK, June 14, 2024,

Jun 17, 2024 Web Exclusive
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I’ve been to some intimate gigs over the years. Some on purpose. Others not. The less said about those sparsely attended gigs the better for now… One gig that was intimate on purpose was David Thomas’ 71st birthday show. The location was need-to-know only and there was only space for a few dozen people, but it delivered an emotional wallop richer than the cake we all devoured at the end. The gig was a Pere Ubu Moon Unit gig. These shows aren’t Thomas solo shows, but they aren’t full Ubu shows either. These are the ones where the band is missing a couple of members and they try out new songs, or new arrangements. For this gig Thomas was joined by longtime guitarist Keith Moliné, clarinettist Alex Ward and on theremin and keyboards Kiersty Boon.

The gig started with a version of “Stacker Three” originally released on the 2017 album Live Free or Die with P.O. Jørgensen. That version features sparse instrumentation. Out of tune plucking, junkyard percussion, and a general feeling of unease. On the night, however, the song had a country, almost, Duane Eddy vibe to it. Moliné’s guitar had a wonderful twang to it. Ward’s clarinet was piercing, but not unpleasant and Boon’s theremin gave the song some whimsy that is missing from the original. In the middle of the song Thomas gave us a footnote explaining the origin. The song is about trucker pills that are used to keep drivers awake for long periods of time. At the end he said, “This is the first footnote, in the history of rock, to feature in the middle of a song”. It set the night up perfectly. It said to us “You will hear things you know, but not the way you remember them”. Then followed “Man in the Dark”. This was originally a collaboration with Thomas and the Australian band The Holy Soul. As well as Thomas singing, he joined in on accordion. Always a treat. This was another case of deviating from the original, as everything took on a Twin Peaks tone. Given the 1950s aesthetic of the building, and performance space, the sound resonated perfectly. Up next was “Planet of Fools.” Originally appearing on the 1996 David Thomas and Two Pale Boys live album Erewhon. This was the one part of the set where the version we were hearing resembled the original the most. “I am the Emperor of Mars” Thomas told us, “If you need a visa, come see me…”. Throughout, Moliné and Ward were tight and played off each other in a way that was missing from the opening songs. Thomas’ set was rounded off by a new song ‘Emperor of Mars’. This is a song that has only previously been played on the Pere Ubu Patreon exclusive live streams. About halfway through Thomas sang “I get no respect being the Emperor of Mars” or was it “from the Emperor of Mars”? Either way it didn’t matter. We were all transfixed. It’s hard to imagine how the song will end up after it’s fleshed out by bass, drums, electronics, etc, etc, or what the rest of the new rumoured album will sound like. I’m guessing it’s like Pere Ubu… After “Emperor of Mars” finished Boon was joined by Moliné and Ward for a version of her poem “Brighton”. The music was loose, but catchy. After “Brighton” the cake was brought out and we sang the obligatory “Happy Birthday” to Thomas. Then Thomas and Boon left the stage and Moliné and Ward played an improvised piece for about fifteen minutes. The piece felt like a call and response between their twangy guitar and warbling clarinet. Then it moved into something else entirely. They weren’t just playing against, and with, each other but they became one. This section couldn’t have carried on for an hour and I wouldn’t have been bored. It was a fitting end to the evening that delivered so much.

When the gig had finished it was time to eat cake, shove handfuls of crisps and hotdogs into our gaping maws and reflect on what we’d witnessed. Despite the ageing of the years Thomas is still sharp as a pin. His lyrics are still astute, surreal and devastating. His vocals have matured giving his stories a gravitas they didn’t have before. Yes, he can still reach those nasally high notes, but the deeper growls have a power hitherto unthought of. When the rumoured new album will be released is anyone’s guess, but it looks set to be a cultural highlight of this, or whatever, year it’s released. I have a theory that this current run of Ubu albums from 2009, especially 2013’s Lady from Shanghai to 2023’s Trouble on Beat Street are stronger than their perceived “Golden Period” of 1978 – 1982 and will be the albums that define their legacy. Given the quality of “Emperor of Mars” and the exceptional playing by Moliné and Ward, and Thomas’ vocals it appears this trend will continue. For one more album at least. Happy birthday David Thomas and thank you for the memories and the cake!


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