Devo is often seen as either a synth band or a novelty band, both understandable perceptions for a bunch of robotic space-dorks bearing electronic keyboards and a brain-imprinting hit called “Whip It.” (You can hear it now, can’t you?) But in a concert at the Minnesota Zoo on the eve of Independence Day 2010, Devo reminded me that Bob Mothersbaugh’s punkish, crisp guitar lines were a key reason why I initially latched onto the band back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and why much of its music retains its punch a full 30 years later.
Taking the stage at dusk on a steamy Minnesota night, the men of Devo probably felt they had something to prove: They were playing their first headline concert on a tour celebrating the release of their first album in 20 years. So prove it they did, delivering a 75-minute set that cemented their status as the finest new wave art-school band ever to emerge from Ohio–or the universe, for that matter.
Devo is all about the stage presence, of course, and accordingly they took the stage walking ramrod-straight, wearing reflective gray suits and creepily dehumanizing gray masks, as if they’d just landed on the shores of the zoo pond in a spacecraft. The giant video screen behind them showed images of the heroic spud-men in industrial settings, then they launched into “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man),” a song from their new album, Something for Everybody.
Like much of the material on the album, the song sounds perfectly of a piece with early-day Devo, yet for many longtime fans, the concert wouldn’t really pick up musically until the band dug into the good old stuff–and that doesn’t, for me, include “Peek-a-Boo” or “Going Under,” older B-list songs that also figured early in the set. Not that we weren’t perfectly amused and entertained by singer Mark Mothersbaugh’s stiffly grandiose gestures or the nonstop video projections. During “What We Do,” ape and human silhouettes did hip thrusts, and during “Fresh,” a go-go girl’s gyrating pelvis was intercut with images of succulent produce.
The crowd started to get more excited with “That’s Good,” one of Devo’s best stabs at dance-floor synth-pop, and the band capitalized on the momentum by peeling through three solid back-catalog numbers: “Girl U Want,” “Whip It,” and “Planet Earth.” They then disappeared backstage during a short Carl Sagan video–that’s right, a Carl Sagan video–and emerged in their classic yellow paper suits and their “energy dome” hats, now blue instead of red by popular demand. That’s when things really got good.
The band’s off-kilter rendition of “Satisfaction” was as delightful a response to the Rolling Stones as it was in 1978–lurching art-pop taking the piss out of Mick’s strut. Bob Mothersbaugh then picked out the opening notes to “Secret Agent Man,” and he would own many of the next few songs with his guitar, notably “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Mongoloid,” and “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA,” which contains several guitar lines that shred in a way that many mall-rat punk bands can only dream of. For a band whose oft-stated intent was to “de-emphasize” guitars, it’s ironic that Devo’s judicious use of the instrument actually elevated its prominence in their music.
After a triumphant “Gates of Steel,” with its surging guitar chords and synths, the band members disappeared again as the “Devo Corporate Anthem” played over the PA and the screen showed a young, fresh-faced Devo standing in formation, hair blowing in the breeze as they gazed skyward through large wraparound shades.
Then it was encore time, with the band in black gym shorts, T-shirts, and kneepads. First came a rock-solid rendition of their free-will manifesto “Freedom of Choice,” then an extended take on the anthemic “Beautiful World” with an appearance (of course) by Mark Mothersbaugh’s alter ego Booji Boy.
Typically, “Beautiful World” contains another one of those great Devo guitar moments–a brief, reverb-laden country-and-western-style solo that somehow makes perfect sense amid its bombastic synth-pop setting. But when Bob Mothersbaugh stepped up onto a riser to deliver it, he broke some strings and had to abandon the enterprise, shaking his head. In its own unscripted way it was a perfect Devo moment, a literal deconstruction of the guitar-hero myth after all.