- David Thomas (center) leads a new Pere Ubu lineup to the Rock Hall stage.
Could the same Pere Ubu that played Pirate's Cove, Peabody's DownUnder, and the Agora over the past 25 years be returning to town? No way. It's been years since there was a stable Ubu -- if, indeed, there ever was one. Pere Ubu formed in Cleveland in the mid-'70s, and, you could say, inconstancy has been its middle name ever since. Perhaps one reason is that vocalist/litterateur David Thomas, for years identified with Ubu, drops no name more purposefully than his own.
No matter. The proudly angular and surreal Pere Ubu, along with the steadier and more accessible Numbers Band, returns to Cleveland to give a free concert outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on June 7 -- certainly the most officially sanctioned date either band has played in the Cleveland area in some time. It will mark the 25th anniversary of Ubu and the 30th of the Numbers. In their heyday of the mid-'70s through the '80s, Cleveland's Ubu and Kent's Numbers were associated with experimentalism, grittiness, and daring.
But as the '80s turned into the '90s, and new wave regressed to pop, both, though continuing to make brave music, became oddly eccentric nostalgia cases.
Both the bravery and the nostalgia should be clear when the current Ubu and the more regionally familiar Numbers showcase a smattering of the material they have generated over the decades. Not only will the date memorialize two of northern Ohio's most important bands; it will give them an opportunity to socialize, even cement bonds forged over the years.
"[Numbers Band singer] Robert Kidney had an idea to do a joint anniversary show, so we knew this was going to be expensive and was something he was really into," Thomas says by phone from his London home. "I thought it would be really cool to do, and they're about the only people in town who could afford it." "They" are the management of the Rock Hall, which agreed to fly Thomas over from London.
"We're very pleased they thought it was a good idea," says the unusually affable Thomas. "It's going to be a pretty special show."
Joining Thomas in Ubu 2000 is bassist Michele Temple, keyboardist Robert Wheeler, original Ubu guitarist Tom Herman, and drummer Steve Mehlman. Also a possibility: Jim Jones, an occasional (and very gifted) Ubu guitarist who doesn't tour.
Jones, a staff photographer for Small Business News, plays in the local "improv band" Speaker/Cranker, which, he says, "can be loud." He lives on the East Side of Cleveland, near Bratenahl. As of the last week of May, Jones wasn't sure whether he would play the Rock Hall date.
Not scheduled to perform: drummer R. Scott Krauss, a charter member of Ubu who quit in 1994; Tony Maimone, a great bassist, who sparked what many consider Ubu's finest sessions; and Eric Drew Feldman, the keyboardist who gave unusual pop depth to Ubu's late-'80s material and recorded for the now out-of-print Fontana label.
"I heard something called Pere Ubu will be playing the Rock Hall," says Krauss, noting Thomas officially announced Krauss was out of the band on the Ubu website (firstname.lastname@example.org), rather than telling him in person. "Tony [Maimone] was out before me, because David couldn't agree with Tony's "demands.'"
Krauss recounts an exchange from Ubu's 1991 tour behind Worlds in Collision, one of the Fontana albums. Thomas told the drummer he wanted Ubu to perform a Thomas tune. "I didn't know it," Krauss recalls. "You mean you don't listen to my music?" asked an incredulous Thomas. At that point, Feldman interrupted. "Don't you listen to Scott's music?" the keyboardist asked Thomas. (Krauss was then associated with Home and Garden, a studio project also including current Ubu bassist Michele Temple; Home and Garden recorded for Randy Meggitt's long-defunct label, After Hours.)
"I have nothing nasty to say," says Krauss, who works in a Cleveland Heights record store. "I don't know what Pere Ubu is; all I know is, please post my check. Mail my royalty check, dammit. David makes it up as it goes along, and that's all. Either you play by his rules, you play his game, or you're not invited. Apparently. My only point is, what Pere Ubu is now, would they actually be invited to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Whatever the vision was early on is why they're happening now."
Maimone lives in Brooklyn, New York, recording and producing bands in his home studio. He has worked with Krust (formerly DJ Krust, a member of drum 'n' bass DJ Roni Size's crew), They Might Be Giants, and Bob Mould.
Feldman, whom Captain Beefheart dubbed "Kitabu," lives in San Francisco and is an alumnus of the Captain's Magic Band and the enigmatic concept group Snakefinger. He is working with ex-Pixie Frank Black and for the past several years has played keyboards and bass for PJ Harvey.
"I also have my own recording and performing group called Knife & Fork," Feldman says by e-mail. "I also produce records for artists, recently producing the likes of Reid Paley, the Blasco Ballroom, and the Beth Lisick Ordeal. So there."
Ubu, meanwhile, soldiers on. Formed in fall 1975 after the demise of Rocket From the Tombs (the band created by Lakewood boy Peter Laughner and Cleveland Heights' David "Crocus Behemoth" Thomas), Pere Ubu was one of the first new wave bands to gain notoriety. (Although Laughner worked in the earliest Ubu, the band fired him in 1976, when he migrated, briefly, to Television. Laughner died of pancreatitis in 1977 at age 24.)
Sparked by the freewheeling EML synthesizer oscillations of Allen Ravenstine (who now makes his money as a pilot), crisp drumming, propulsive bass, dreamlike lyrics, and Thomas's striking vocals, Ubu has persevered through turbulent personnel changes and record-label convulsions. At its most popular -- probably in the late '70s and late '80s -- it skirted pop success. But fundamentally, it has never been anything but alternative -- particularly in Cleveland, where it has drawn as few as 100 people.
Ubu may draw far more June 7, when it performs "a sprinkling of selections from the 25 years, as we usually play these days," Thomas says. "We have a lot of material. We always play a selection and never really concentrate on one period or another."
This Ubu recently recorded the song "Wasteland," for an anthology being assembled by ex-MC5 singer-guitarist Wayne Kramer, and is developing yet more new material for an upcoming album for Thirsty Ear. Meanwhile, Thomas recently released Bay City under his own name, backed by a Danish group called the Foreigners, and, with a large, more diverse, and altogether different group, Mirror Man, a theatrical piece he has presented in London and, more recently, in Quebec.
Bay City, like other discs released under Thomas's name, has moments of brilliance, such as "Black Rain" and "Salt." But it also is overindulgent, and the Foreigners have little personality. The star is definitely Thomas, as he prefers.
"I like to work in different formats," says Thomas. "The stories and themes, to me, are all the same. It's just different ways of working. Pere Ubu is clearly a rock band; the Pale Boys [yet another Thomas franchise] is an improvisational group using more modern technology; the Foreigners is interesting, looking at American music and American idioms in a third-person sort of way; and the theatrical thing, where I'm working with Linda Thompson and Bruce Cutler in making a spectacle, is a whole different vibe."
That "theatrical thing" also is an opportunity to work with Numbers Band leader Robert Kidney, a dramatic singer and vivid songwriter who has been peripheral to the big time -- the Numbers never recorded for a major label, but they came close -- but has never been marginal. Kidney joined Thomas in Victoriaville, Quebec, this past week to perform in Mirror Man. Kidney, too, is looking forward to the Rock Hall bill.
"I wanted to do something special," Kidney says from his home in Kent. Not only will this be an opportunity to repay an old friend -- Kidney says Thomas was very supportive of the Numbers when the new wave Ubu, and kindred bands like Talking Heads and Television, overshadowed the bluesier Numbers; it's a chance to share a bill with a band that did a benefit for Kidney 10 years ago, when he needed money to pay for -- yes, a kidney transplant.
Robert and his brother, Jack, have toured England as the Kidney Brothers; they, along with saxman Terry Hynde (brother of the Pretenders' Chrissie), drummer Frank Casavento, and bassist Frank Reynolds, have been together for five years (the Kidney brothers have been together far longer, of course).
While the Numbers made their initial mark at the Kent club JB's, the band no longer plays sports bars or other venues where music is not the main draw, Kidney says. But they still enjoy a loyal following, at the Outpost in Kent and at clubs in Akron and Youngstown. The Numbers just rereleased their first album, Jimmy Bell Is Still in Town, on CD; in doing so, they've come up with a version far superior to the original, which, though highly collectible, was pressed on cheap vinyl. Jimmy Bell, a recording of a live date opening for Bob Marley on his first American tour, was released in 1976.
Also in the making: a blues CD and a collection of recordings, including live material, from the early '90s. The band is undertaking these projects so the Numbers can make enough money to record another CD of originals. "We all got jobs, and it takes a long time to get anything done," Kidney says.
For his part, Thomas is eager -- finally -- to check out the Rock Hall.
"I always said I'd visit when they threw Tina Turner out and put Ike Turner in," he says. "I don't sight-see, particularly; there's no reason to go there. I suppose I have a reason now. At least to find the dressing room."