As anyone who reads this blog already knows, I am a lifelong fan of the band Devo and have seen them perform numerous times over the past thirty-two years. In fact, their 1982 OH, NO! IT'S DEVO! tour was my very first concert. (I was seventeen.) With that kind of long attendance record, one might think it would be a tough call to state conclusively which of their shows I found to be the most enjoyable of the lot, but what follows will likely stand as my end-all/be-all pronouncement on the subject.
Considering the recent deaths of Alan Myers and Bob Casale (aka Bob 2), two of the band's core members during the height of the group's popularity (drummer and guitarist/keyboardist, respectively), as well as the simple fact that the three remaining core members, Gerry Casale (group founder and bassist/vocalist), Mark Mothersbaugh (lead vocalist/guitarist/keyboards), and Bob Mothersbaugh (aka Bob 1; guitarist/occasional vocals) are all in their sixties, one wonders just how long the band will continue to exist as a live performing entity. Bearing that in mind, if the current tour turns out to be Devo's final live hurrah, let it be said that the boys will have placed the most impressive possible coda on their innovative and influential four-decade run.
One of the problems with writing about one's favorite band is that whatever one puts to the page can come off as puff pieces devoid of objectivity and rife with Tiger Beat-level idol worship of the most adolescent variety, and in my personal case I find it nigh impossible to discuss Devo without making crystal clear the reasons why I maintain such ardor for their work. When I discovered Devo I was thirteen years old, not doing very well at weathering the emotional/psychological fallout from my parents' vitriolic (and long overdue) divorce, and drowning in the stygian depths of adolescence in a community where I was marked as an enemy outsider from the time I arrived there at age seven. Sure, I had a handful of friends, but where I grew up I was visibly quite different from my peers by simple virtue of being black, and that offense was compounded by having inherited the smarts of my parents. Westport was a town that had use for its niggers, as domestics and other figures to be superior to, but it sure as hell didn't like its niggers smart, so it was not an easy time. And when it came to music, one of the major influences that teenagers bond over, I tried to fit in by absorbing several of the what I call "legacy bands" — meaning bands one receives via their music being passed down by parents or elder siblings — favored by most of the kids my age. That worked to a small degree but I noticed early on that most of Westport's kids were stuck in a musical rut of stale '60's groups and '70's cock rock, and I began to bore of such fare.
Then came Devo's now-legendary appearance on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, a classic TV moment that united the nation with a slack-jawed kick in the brain and the sound of millions of viewers simultaneously exclaiming, "What the fuck did I just see?" I can't speak for everyone else but I was intrigued. Just who were these strange flesh-automatons who moved with jittery gestures while somehow managing to re-craft an aging chestnut like the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't get No) Satisfaction"into an escalating litany of edgy, nervous frustration? How dare they insinuate themselves into an aural arena dominated by Kiss and/or the plague that was disco? But the most important question was "Where the hell can I hear more of this stuff???" Devo sounded like nothing I'd encountered before and, simply put, they opened up my mind to the myriad possibilities of music, and that opening of the doorway led to musical exploration that continues to this day. Thanks to them I spent the next several years absorbing their music and the cynical philosophy it imparted, with much of it becoming sort of the cool soundtrack to my admittedly dorky existence. Whenever I hear any of the Devo tunes from their first five albums, I am immediately transported back to the few truly happy moments of what was perhaps the most miserable time of my life, and for that I will always be grateful. In no uncertain terms, Devo saved my sanity.
Which brings me to last Thursday night.
(Special thanks to Ken Pierce of the excellent Piercing Metal.com website for the very kind use of photos he took at the show, including this one. The others will also be noted.)
I and my frequent co-pilot at Devo shows, the lovely Xtina, made our way to the Best Buy Theater in Times Square, an area we both avoid like the plague due to it being claustrophobically overcrowded with tourists year-round, and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the venue. It featured the standard dance floor setup that allows for the fans to get close to the stage and dance like maniacs close to their band of choice, and it also had a good number of seats for those who chose to watch the godless rakka-frakka like civilized concert-goers. I was especially grateful for the seating because my feet were killing me, so I sat down at a concert for the first time in over twenty-three years. But before I sat down I did a round of the floor and the merch area — picking up a can of Stella Artois for ten bucks (!!!) in the process —and as usual there were a good number of fans sporting oddball costumes, masks, Devo-related tattoos, and of course the signature Energy Domes that are the band's most visually-recognizable piece of imagery. An iconic image that's as emblematic of Devo as the huge lips logo is to the Rolling Stones, the Energy Dome instantly conjures up memories of 1980's pop culture and invariably elicits shouts of "Whip it good!" from passersby when it's seen worn on the street.
On the floor with a random fan.
With fellow Devo hardcore Tom Keirstead — who until that moment I only knew as a Facebook presence, and fellow SUNY Purchase inmate, Tanya (whom I had not seen in a shamefully long time).
Upon reluctantly abandoning Xtina to the floor and taking my seat, I settled in and tried not to feel old due to skipping being caught up in the crush of the pit. During the time before the show started, I had plenty of time to observe the fans around me and note that many of them were a good deal older than my soon-to-be-49 self, and I mentally commended them for having had the balls to get into Devo at a time when they could have been among the beautiful people infesting disco-era venues like NYC's legendary Studio 54. I was also quite pleased to see a good number of people in their mid-thirties to mid-firties with their young kids in tow. It gave me hope to see the new generation being exposed to something other than the corporate swill and auto-tuned music-by-committee that passes for pop in the twenty-tens.
When the lights dimmed, the show began with no opening act as the members of Devo sat onstage discussing current events of 1974, the year in which their musical endeavors launched in earnest.
Meanwhile, in 1974... (photo by Xtina)
In short order, things kicked off with bespectacled front man Mark Mothersbaugh's starkly robotic "Mechanical Man," followed by a set comprised mostly of the band's very early and obscure material — obscure to non-hardcore fans, anyway — with only three songs from Devo's first two albums and, refreshingly, no material whatsoever from the hit-making days of "Whipit." Don't get me wrong. I love Devo's later, more dance-oriented work, but I strongly prefer their more aggressively weird and experimental output, and that is what I got that night in spades. Those expecting "Whipit," "That's Good," "Beautiful World," "Gates of Steel," and other popular favorites were denied those tunes that had been played and heard ad infinitum over the past thirty-plus years, and as a result they were treated to a Devo freed from playing nothing but the expected "best of" roster and re-energized by returning to their mutated roots. Marked by a bass-heavy mix, the boys rocked ass like I had not heard them do in a long time, and they were quite obviously having a great time doing it.
Set list for the show's first half. (photo courtesy of Piercing Metal.com )
Set list for the show's second half. (photo courtesy of Piercing Metal.com )
Bob 1: guitar god. (photo courtesy of Piercing Metal.com )
I'll spare you the song-by-song rundown because the whole show put its mutated foot straight up the ass of cookie cuter musical complacency, but the tongue-twisting "Fraulein," "Soo Bawlz" (spelled incorrectly on the set list, by the way), "Stop Look and Listen," "Social Fools," and especially "Fountain of Filth" — a personal favorite — were especially notable for their seismic level of rockingness. The umpteenth performances of "Satisfaction," "Uncontrollable Urge," and "Gut Feeling" (refreshingly minus the connective tissue of "Slap Your Mammy," for once) all resonated, especially "Gut Feeling," which seems to me to be becoming a favorite non-hit selection among casual Devo-listeners thanks to its lengthy, wistful, almost hypnotic guitar into that Bob 1 completely owns like a boss. And I was amused to note that Gerry self-centered the word "cunt" during his rendition of "I Been Refused," perhaps out of consideration for the kiddies that were present. (Personally, I would have left it in, just to give them wee ones something to be shocked by and talk about in the schoolyard the next day.)
Bob 1 lays into "Gut Feeling" and its signature riff. (photo by Xtina)
Booji Boy takes the stage. (exceptional photo courtesy of Piercing Metal.com )
His high-pitched warblings confused the living shit out of a number of the children in the audience and I also hope they found Booji Boy to be more than a little bit disturbing. (A first concert coupled with some nightmare-fuel sounds like a win to me.)
(photo by Xtina)
Note the young fan with his fists raised in unbridled enthusiasm. The kid was maybe eight or nine and he grooved like a maniac throughout the show.
(photo by Xtina)
(photo by Xtina)
(photo courtesy of Piercing Metal.com )
And though note was made of the recent death of former member Bob Casale, the proceedings were in no way funereal and instead served as a celebration the like of which I can only hope will occur when I am inevitably found tits-up somewhere (hopeful not with a freeze-dried iguana lodged up my ass). Booji Boy's encore of "U Got Me Bugged" added an appropriately weird coda, only to be followed by Gerry's sprightly rendition of the second album classic "Clockout" as the show's closer, ending things on the highest of high notes.
(photo courtesy of Piercing Metal.com )
Throughout the show, I reflected on my love of this band and just how much their music means to me, and by the time "Gut Feeling" rolled around I have to admit that I had tears streaming down my face. If I never see another Devo show, I will carry that feeling of pure happiness with me as a cherished memory.
When the lights came up and Devo left the stage, I waved down Xtina, who excitedly ran over to me and blurted out, "Did you see it? There was a fucking cat fight up front!" I totally did not see anything of the sort from my vantage point, but here's Xtina's firsthand account of what went down:
"It happened early on in the show. I believe I was enjoying 'She Didn't Know I was A Midget" when it occurred. Suddenly there was a lot of movement and I thought folks were beginning to mosh. Instead it was just a bunch of people trying to squeeze past the already existing crowd to get closer to the stage. At that point, a woman who was already at the front started choking a woman behind her. When people began to notice that a woman actually had another woman's hand around her throat, a couple of guys in the audience tried to break it up. A few minutes later, three tough-looking women deliberately pushed their way through, grabbed the woman who was doing the choking, and slapped her across the face. This erupted into another brawl, the kind you see on a baseball mound, only with women. At that point I backed up because it looked intense, There were punches and slaps back and forth and the surrounding men broke it up again. At that point, one of the guys yelled at the top of his lungs, 'This is a fucking Devo show!' at them. It all settled down after that."
Xtina recounts the floor's cat fight to Tanya.
Anyway, after careful consideration of the nearly twenty live Devo shows I've seen over the past thirty-two years, and I've had a week to seriously weigh my thoughts on the matter, I have to say that this Hardcore Devo event is my hands down favorite. It was Devo firing on all cylinders, with their original mission intent restored, and I'm elated that many newcomers got to see them at their unadulterated best. I'll always see Devo whenever they hit town but I pray that this tour receives enough popular acclaim to spur them to maintain their pre-MTV vibe for a while. And a CD and/or DVD release of the show would be much appreciated. Maybe even a new album rife with specific flavor of de-evolved tunage...