South Bank Centre, London
David Thomas is one very strange fellow. Somewhere between the late John Nance of David Lynch's Eraserhead fame and your favourite mad avuncular uncle, the leading light of Pere Ubu has over the course of 23 years puzzled critics, delighted fans and inspired many musicians (Julian Cope, Frank Black) with his unique brand of avant-garde rock. Entrusting him with the role of curator, a four-day festival staged around different South Bank venues, may have been courting disaster.
As I walked in on Caligari's Diner, as the first of last week's events was billed, my worst fears started to materialise in front of my very eyes. American performance artist Daved Hild was shouting through a dummy tied to a microphone-stand. Garish yellow signs proclaiming "We are glad you are here", "Avoid trite and unnecessary talking" and a dummy wrapped in tinfoil on top of two revolving washing machines confirmed my worst fears. Visions of Faust's ill-fated performances in the same bunker a few years ago came back to haunt me.
Thankfully, Thomas intervened to reassure everyone. Acting as genial host, ringmaster and self-deprecating grand fromage, he told us to be prepared for the worst ("expectation is the only evil we have to fear as performers," he quipped) and introduced Peter Blegvad. Accompanied by his 70s sidekicks, John Greaves (on bass) and Chris Cutler from Slapp Happy and Henry Cow (arms flailing all over his drum kit), the creator of the Independent On Sunday's Leviathan cartoon was a revelation. Somewhere between Talking Heads, XTC and Neil Young but with his own peculiar vision.
Jackie Leven turned out to be even more impressive. A formidable man in all senses of the word, the veteran singer-songwriter took to the stage wearing a pair of incredibly thick white Scottish woollen socks (no kilt though) and cracked filthy jokes about sharing a room with Andy White in a gay Amsterdam hotel. Leven has a voice as big as his "Sacred Heart" and his material, in the rich vein of Celtic performers such as Van Morrison, John Martyn and Mike Scott, confronts issues head-on (as in "Extremely Violent Man").
After this embarrassment of riches, the Kidney Brothers' take on urban blues was something of a let-down. "Is this worth spending pounds 15 for a cab?" asked Thomas as the audience dwindled and I made a dash for the train.
By the following night, the hand-made props and subversive slogans had moved from the smaller Purcell Room to the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the cast of oddballs and cult figures had swelled to include Van Der Graaf Generator refugee Peter Hammill, Linda Thompson (Richard's ex) and Andy Diagram (formerly of James and the Diagram Brothers). Their appearances fleshed out Thomas's strange monologues, and once again Leven's soaring vocals dominated.
I came back the following day for a nostalgic trip to the heydays of Leven's Doll By Doll and Pere Ubu. Surprisingly, Leven was less effective when backed by his old neo-psychedelic band. However, Pere Ubu's staggeringly intense set (the opening "Chinese Radiation" burned a hole in my brain, while a jaw-droppingly demented cover of "Wooly Bully" was a closing highlight) rounded off the event neatly and proved that David Thomas deserves the self-appointed tag of "custodian of the avant-garde". Now resident in Brighton, he is no slouch when it comes to recognizing British talent.
At times a bit of a curate's egg and mad circus come to town, nevertheless delivered more than recent sets by the 70s electronic duo, Suicide, who once ploughed their lonely furrow a la Pere Ubu. Not quite Ubu Roi but definitely court-jester material.
Pity Crown Prince Peter Mandelson was nowhere to be seen! He could have grabbed a few budget-priced ideas from David Thomas's DIY ragbag of art terrorism for his own Millennium Dome.