Some forty-odd years ago, the men known as Devo began concocting their strange music in a moldy basement in post-industrial boom Akron, Ohio. A little over twenty years ago these early experiments were made available to the listening public for the first time via the Hardcore Devo collections. Reissued last year by Superior Viaduct, the two volumes of pre-Warners Bros. Devo have been rightfully hailed as visionary examples of prime proto-punk. To honor recently passed founding member Bob Casale (aka Bob2) and raise money for his family, Devo decided to embark upon a ten city tour performing, for the first time ever, the material from their gestational years of 1974 to 1977.
As it came close to show time, you had to wonder, did the aging spuds still have it? Would they be able to do justice to the freakish, funhouse nature of their initial incarnation? Any lingering doubts were laid to rest immediately as the foursome emerged from an ingenious backdrop mimicking the cinderblock confines of a dank Akron basement, and launched into the malfunctioning robot lament Mechanical Man. There was to be no skimping on the weirdness as the run of Auto Modown, Space Girl Blues and Baby Talkin’ Bitches demonstrated. As if the last forty years had transpired in the blink of an eye, Devo slipped back into these songs with great ease, shedding their commercial skin and reveling in the primordial ooze of their founding years.
It was striking how effortlessly Devo dusted off these old, musty tunes and thrust them into a hyper-modern, somewhat cavernous venue like Best Buy Theater. While retaining their quirky lurch and mad scientist synth blurts, these songs were heavy and thrillingly alive. Ace drummer Josh Freese is likely one of the few humans alive who could replace the late Alan Meyers, and his powerful, precise touch added a weighty bottom to the devolved mutant funk of songs like I Been Refused and Midget. Of course, the bizarre, decidedly non-PC lyrics of Bamboo Bimbo still perplex and amuse in equal measures. Bassist and noted ham Jerry Casale particularly seemed to relish glimpses into his own twisted, young mind. Except now that there are several generations of weirdos to laugh along with him.
And then the suits came out. Forgoing the iconic yellow hazmat gear and flowerpot domes, the quartet donned “real Akron janitorial wear” and bank robber masks. As the previously nondescript basement set split apart into a dazzling yet tasteful lighting backdrop, Devo popped up off their chairs and delved into the songs that established them as one of the great pop-art groups. Their genius take on the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction, early hit Be Stiff, debut album kickstarter Uncontrollable Urge and the slow burn of Gut Feeling contrasted perfectly with lesser known tracks like Soo Bawls, Ono and Fountain Of Filth. To the packed crowd, they might as well all have been number one hits as the band whipped the Devo-tees into a lather with official de-evolution anthem, Jocko Homo.
After creepy mascot Booji Boy waddled out with a walker and serenaded the audience to the warped tones of U Got Me Bugged, Devo then ended the nearly ninety-minute set by dedicating Clockout to the late Bob2. Since the band seemed to have as much of a blast as the gathered faithful, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these old chestnuts find their way into the regular Devo set. Bob, Alan, General Boy and Rod Rooter would be proud.