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In 1974, when Devo was recording some of its earliest material in an Akron, Ohio basement, could its members have possibly imagined that they would be playing the same, obscure experimental art-rock four decades later in the epicenter of Manhattan to a large, adoring crowd?
Devo’s Thursday night show was highly improbable on many levels. How unlikely that the once widely ridiculed band would be playing 40 years on and winning over a new generation of fans? And how unlikely that this group would finally receive its proper due as musical, visual and stage performance pioneers? And how unlikely – and gutsy – to forego the usual yet admittedly great hits like “Whip It,” “Freedom of Choice,” “Gates of Steel,” “Beautiful World,” etc. to relearn and play music created from 1974-1977 that is far less known and far less commercial on this 10-city Hardcore Devo North American tour?
While Superior Viaduct last year rereleased the songs played on this tour, and others from that period, as Hardcore Vol. I and II, these tunes remain largely unknown to casual fans. And no doubt, some of those fans, in particular, were likely disappointed by the unfamiliar and challenging set list. That said, Devo co-founder and bassist and vocalist Gerald Casale recently said he was “blown away” by the strong sales numbers of the reissues.
Sadly, however, there is more to explain why these tunes are being played now. Devo guitarist and original member Bob Casale (known as “Bob 2”) died of heart failure at 61 in February. He and brother Gerald had previously discussed playing these songs on tour. A portion of proceeds raised from the tour will help Casale’s family pay medical bills, as he reportedly had no health insurance. (Donations can be made at GoFundMe.com.)
While most of what Devo played in New York was obscure, some better-known songs birthed between 1974-1977 made appearances, including the anthemic “Jocko Homo,” exuberant “Uncontrollable Urge” and epic “Gut Feeling” (no “Slap Your Mammy” though!). These all appear on the group’s Brian Eno-produced 1978 masterpiece debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!. (See my review of Devo playing this live in NYC in 2009.)
Mark Mothersbaugh may be at retirement age but he remains a vital and charismatic front man. Drummer Josh Freese and guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh (“Bob 1”) delivered solid performances too. The aforementioned “Q&A” crowd pleasers resonated all the more given that some of the “Hardcore” songs appeal more for fearless experimentalism than for being excellent compositions. However, many are indeed great and in the aggregate it’s striking that these ancient artifacts sound far fresher and more modern than much of what the band has recorded.
After the show, my friends and I got to meet Devo. And what gents they were. They chitchatted, signed away and were very much in the moment. No de-evolution was apparent at all!