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The spudboys are back!
After creating little of artistic merit during most of the eighties and all of the nineties and this decade, DEVO made a triumphant return in Manhattan playing their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! from start to finish to a sold-out crowd.
This surprisingly proved to be an incredible show. I last saw Devo in 2005 and remember that for some reason words like “nostalgia tour” and “money grab” kept coming to mind. The band seemed fat and happy and didn’t exactly burn with intensity.
So when I learned that on this tour Devo would alternate playing this BRIAN ENO-produced album and their breakout third album, Freedom of Choice, I was tempted as Devo has always held a special place in my heart. But I was extremely wary based on past experience and because shows on this tour have been very short (just the album each night and a couple songs in the encore).
After much hand wringing, I thankfully went.
Devo kicked out the songs with so much energy and conviction that you forgot you were watching the group 37 years after its inception. A big reason for this was due to the drumming of JOSH FREESE who gave these early songs the spice and speed they required.
The band fed off the crowd’s warm embrace and started the night with the driving and anthemic “Uncontrollable Urge.” The usual suspects like “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo” thrilled but “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy” was flat out sensational. The building intensity of the organic sounding first half segued perfectly to MARK MOTHERSBAUGH’s singing, which pleaded and implored with passion and precision. He even nailed the triumphant madman howl just before the last part of the song begins. (He also nailed the howl at the beginning of “Too Much Paranoias.”)
One of the best things about hearing a full album played live is that even obscure songs get played as all too often shows are “best of” performances. On that count, “Shrivel Up,” a song that never held any deep fascination, deeply fascinated. The group even faithfully recreated the omnipresent soft percussive from the studio version that sounds vaguely like vocal samples of Sleestaks from the old TV show “Land of the Lost” looped into an ascending and descending sequence.
“Space Junk,” another obscure cut, perfectly illustrated just how adventurous and playful the group could be both musically and lyrically. And as with so many songs on this record, Mothersbaugh’s personality shines through in his singing…”A Soviet Sputnik hit Africa. India, Venezuela (in Texas, Kansas), it’s falling in Peru too.” If you know the song you likely can hear Mothersbaugh in your head.
This same personality-drenched singing can be found on the manic “Too Much Paranoias”… “I been dipped in double meaning. I been stuck with static cling. Think I got a rupto-pac. Think I got a big mac attack…Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way. Too much paranoias…”
Strangely, the best part of the show may have been the encore. “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” was electric, offering an exhilarating fusion of punk/experimental/electronic music. Then “Gates of Steel,” one of Devo’s best songs, was played with majestic yet understated power. The next and last encore saw Devo cranking out the very good “Secret Agent Man.”
The affection for Devo ran so great that at one point a visibly humbled and chuffed Mothersbaugh stopped to take in the spectacle of a packed Manhattan audience cheering his group on. As he slowly scanned from left to right, absorbing the enormity and emotion of the moment, I saw on his face a sense of gratitude that was as deep as the crowd was large.
Devo was one of the first bands that truly resonated with me in my youth and remarkably after seeing them now three decades after their first record, I got goose bumps watching them receive a hero’s welcome. Whether you want to call Devo legends or not, their highly influential legacy is finally being given its due.
Devo will reportedly release a new record next spring. Though I’m not expecting a great record (well shucks, the last time Devo made a truly good album CAL RIPKEN JR. played the first game of his 2,632 consecutive game streak and Sony just launched the first compact disc player) my fingers are crossed. After all, cough, cough, I’ve been wrong about Devo before.