I had a photography teacher in high school that would play a video of The Eagles‘ “Hell Freezes Over” tour, almost every day in class. Occasionally, it would be a Billy Joel concert video instead, but it was still pretty terrible. Fortunately, I was in “advanced photography” and was able to avoid some of it. This basically means that I would step past the rest of the class and puff chronic herbs out of Country Time Lemonade cans in the dark room. One day I came to class and was surprised to see that the TV was playing We’re All Devo, a VHS featuring music videos and original SNL cast member turned voice-over actress, Laraine Newman. It wasn’t too difficult to locate the kid who brought in the DEVO video, because he was the only one that was even paying attention to the screen. Besides that kid, the only other person that I knew who was really vocal about their appreciation for the group, was my friend Crackbaby G. It was the mid -90s, and nobody at my suburban high school really gave a shit about the, then defunct, band. Thanks to Crackbaby, in 2006, I was finally able to achieve my dream of seeing DEVO live for the first time. This month, I was finally able to combine my love of photography with an opportunity to witness the bands on- stage theatrics all over again. Much like The Pixies, DEVO has set out on a limited city tour, scheduled to coincide with a deluxe album re-release. The Ultra DEVO-LUX Ltd. Edition packaging will feature their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, and the commercially successful Freedom of Choice. The double re-issue will also contain unreleased material, 2 DVDs, a poster, and a yellow 7 inch vinyl. The tour itself involves a 2 night stop in each of 6 different major cities. The first of the nights features the group performing Are We Not Men? in its entirety, while the second night involves them giving the same treatment to Freedom of Choice. I knew that DEVO was scheduled to perform a pair of dates in Seattle, but I had also accepted that I was probably not going to be able to see either of them. I tried to jump on it and request passes the day that the press release was sent out, but it was a difficult ticket to get and the comp. tickets were all accounted for by radio stations. As someone who used to listen to Are We Not Men? religiously, I was disappointed. When the day of the show approached and I hadn’t heard any good news, I all but put the concerts out of my mind entirely. The first night came and went but, on the second/Freedom of Choice night, I received a last minute email informing me that I could be approved for a photo pass. The problem was that there were no more reviewer passes left. I’ve had issues trying to enter the venue without a ticket in the past, but I was assured that shouldn’t be an issue. This also meant that, if I wanted to stay in the venue after the 3-song limit outlined in the photo-policy, I was going to have to do so on the sly.
DEVO The Moore Theater Seattle, Wa November, 9 2009
After going to the wrong venue, I stumbled up to the box office and received what was easily the slickest photo-pass that I have ever seen. It was in the shape of one of DEVO‘s patented “energy dome” hats. I’ve noticed that it’s easier to control a conversation if I speak first and speak quickly, so I flashed my pass at the doorman like Axel Foley and said, “I was told that this would be enough” as I stepped through the door. For a split second, he looked around aimlessly, then nodded in agreement and said, “Okay.” Once inside, I finally met our connection to the venue, which has been helping us gain access to endless shows and has been providing ticket giveaways for all of you Chachis over the last year. He told me that there would be some open seats on the floor and that I could probably just slide back into one of them, inconspicuously, after I was done shooting. Reggie Watts was opening but, after running from the last venue, I needed a drink and spent his set in the bar downstairs. I was sitting at an empty table, so a couple asked to share it with me. The female of the two was sipping an $11 specialty drink called the “Whip It“, which she disappointingly realized wasn’t much different than a Cape Cod. Before heading back up-stairs, I discovered that that the man was in a local band called Super Geek League. More than just a band name, it was also foreshadowing for the crowd at the DEVO show that night. The more bands that I see, the more aware that I become of the distinct differences between the respective crowds that are drawn to them. This time I felt as if I had crashed a D&D tournament. While I was getting my camera ready, I tried to make small talk with a man who was sitting in the front row with his lady. “Were you at last night’s show too?“, I asked. He responded with, “Yes. A lot of people were.” I then asked him if DEVO did anything special for the Q: & A: album’s set and he responded by telling me that, “They played the album all of the way through.” I knew that much, already. “I mean, was the performance itself tailored in anyway to the album or was there anything different that related to it specifically?” He opened up slightly more, but his answers were still very distant. It was as if I–carrying a camera–was there to observe and document them as “fanatics” and not for the show itself. Ironically, it was that suspicious discomfort that, actually, made me realize that the crowd was just as vital in the documentation of the concert itself. There was a general, conflicting mix of awkwardness, confidence, self doubt, elitism, excitement, and apathy in the air. Fans funneled into seats wearing the plastic “energy domes” that they freshly purchased from the merch table. They held unopened vinyl records and were pulling on crisp T-Shirts. I wasn’t sure if the message was that I was too “cool” to be there or that I wasn’t “cool” enough. Part of me wanted to go up to someone holding a sealed Are We Not Men? album and let them know that I have the original release on marbled vinyl or, perhaps, just point out the irony of mass consumerism at a show for one of the most anti-capitalism/conformist bands of all time. “Relax self, you’re bigger than that and at least, you’ve seen a live woman naked before. Besides, what if you become addicted to patronization and are in desperate need of some IT help someday?“. Fuck it! Maybe the issue was just that it was Freedom of Choice (1980) night and “Through Being Cool” wasn’t released until the following year [New Traditionalists (1981)]. The equipment (drums, synths, etc) were set up and the back of the stage was equipped with large, boxy, speaker-shaped lighting rigs. The drums were positioned to the left and everything was arranged very symmetrically. A projector screen had been pulled down in the center and the show began by having the video for “Girl You Want” played on it. This was followed, in order, by the videos for “Whip It” and “Freedom of Choice“. I was just hoping that these videos didn’t qualify as part of of my 3-song photo limit. The screen lifted and a skinny “spud boy” came out wearing nothing, except his rubber mask and tighty whities. He held a card, reading “Track 1” over his head, like a ring girl, and the band took the stage to an uproar of applause. Staying true to the Freedom of Choice era, they were sporting matching short-sleeve, beige jumpsuits and their trademark energy domes on top of their heads. The jumpsuits had a vertical stripe up the right side of the chest and another one that simulated a belt around the waist. Both of them appeared to be constructed from red packing tape and the ensembles mirrored the ones that they wore 30 yrs prior. They were slightly different than the originals but, unless you’re a complete fucking nerd, you probably wouldn’t have noticed it. [Fun Fact: I noticed.] The individual members of DEVO took the helm at their appropriate stations and immediately broke into “Girl U Want“. Mark Mothersbaugh stepped towards the front of the stage, pumping his microphone into the air, while synchronized flashes of color and light mesmerized the crowd. Looking at my notebook now, I see that I have scrawled down the words “Industrial Nerds and Magic“. There’s an instantaneous excitement that can overtake someone the moment that a show finally begins, but it doesn’t always last. I had just watched the complete “Girl U Want” video in it’s entirety and, by hearing it again so quickly, the hype could barely be sustained through to the end of the track. As expected, they followed it up with “It’s Not Right” and the set continued in chronological album order until the end. The following song on Freedom of Choice is “Whip It“, so that was what they played next. Obviously, this is their most famous track and, unfortunately, the only one that the majority of people even know by the group. Interestingly enough, when the video for “Whip It” was released, it was hailed by some as being “sexist” and stirred up more controversy than any of their previous work. Now it’s a favorite of soccer moms and corporate baseball enthusiast. It is also the only DEVO song listed in most karaoke song books. If these guys were one-hit wonders, without a solid catalog, they would be playing shitty Casinos, instead of selling out The Moore Theatre on back to back nights. Being a fan of said catalog, their one “popular” song can feel played out and the fact that I just watched the official video for it, not 20 minutes prior, didn’t help alleviate that feeling. The lights flashed red, like a swarm of ambulances, and Mothersbaugh waved his hands, snapping his wrists as if he were cracking a whip. In the middle of the song, he frisbeed a couple of energy domes out to the audience. Other than that, the performance wasn’t too exciting and it really felt as if they were simply going through the motions. The man in his drawls returned holding the track 4 and 5 signs in his hands. This was supposed to be my cue to quit shooting and, keeping in mind that I didn’t have a ticket, I backed up towards an empty seat. Then, realizing that I’m an asshole, I fired off a couple of extra shots anyway. Holding 3 fingers in my face, an irritated security guard manifested in seconds, like some form of ninja apparition. “Oh, first 3?“, I pretended to clarify and then sat down. At least I was still inside and they had just kicked into the opening synth riff from “Snowball“. Things were getting interesting and beginning to pick back up again. Josh Freese has been drumming for DEVO since their reformation in 1996, and he has some solid chops on the electro break-beats. During the intro, the other 4 members hopped on one foot , alternated feet, and clapped their hands overhead to the snare hits; all in sync with each other. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWDxpqsWt9E For “Ton O’ Luv“, Jerry Casale took center stage at the mic and his brother, Bob (aka: “Bob 2”) took over his spot at the keys behind him. For the title track, Jerry took his bass to the mic, Bob2 strapped on his guitar, and Mark sang up front, only returning to his rack to play the signature “Freedom of Choice” keyboard jam. They would make minor changes like this throughout the rest of the show; switching instruments, sharing vocals, etc. However, beyond these planned out rotations and the few synchronized steps from earlier, there wasn’t much orchestration to the set at all. They didn’t fuck anything up, but there was little to no banter and they offered up a fairly basic rendition of the album straight through. The set, just like the record, ended on the song “Planet Earth“.
Once they left the stage, the lights went down and a projection of stars shot across the back of the stage. An audio track came through the monitors, which urged the audience to think about the “incomprehensible” size of the universe and how our galaxy alone is like a “speck of sand“. The voice then humbly recognized the tiny insignificance of DEVO in the grand scheme of this massive world and welcomed them back to the stage. The light came back on and the encore began with the single “Be Stiff“. Jerry Casale marched and sang, while Bob “Bob 1” Mothersbaugh showcased his guitar skills. After the synth-pop heavy album, it was really refreshing to hear them pull an early song from their repertoire that was more on the straight punk side. This also marked some of the first real interaction with the crowd, as Jerry advised us to, “Always live like you’re on TV. Stiff and rigid, like an apple tree.” Mark Mothersbaugh had slipped off back-stage and I could see that he was changing into his alter-ego, Booji Boy. His bandmates began playing the song “Beautiful World” [New Traditionalists], with Casale still on vocals. About a minute into the song, Mothersbaugh re-entered in his alternate getup. The frontman was dressed in his updated Booji Boy attire, which consisted of a baseball cap, with a rhinestone skull on the front, and a chorus member-style gown, with “Booji Boy” sewn across the back. He waved to the audience, sang in his standard high-pitch voice, and even threw down a keyboard solo. The keyboard jam morphed into a tease of “Satisfaction“, before turning into a slow groove/breakdown to allow “Booji Boy” to say a few words to the audience. “You know? It seems like such a long time ago, when we did these songs.” he began. “But I remember it just like yesterday, when DEVO first went to Hollywood, ‘cuz we didn’t know anyone and Booji Boy was scared” He continued by telling a story about walking down Hollywood and Vine, having Michael Jackson pick him up in a limo, and going to Neverland Ranch. He said that he was “the nicest” man and expressed his sadness about the loss. He then told the crowd that he was sure that, if MJ could crawl out of the grave “just like in Thriller” and walk up to Seattle to get on stage with them, that he would say, “It’s a Beautiful World!” The song returned full-force and finished off strong. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfEwr___iPM At the end, Booji Boy lifted up his gown to expose a hidden fannypack. With one hand, he reached inside and pulled out multi-colored rubber balls, which he threw and bounced out to the audience. It was a little unsettling to see middle-aged men climbing over seats to grab super balls with happy faces on them. One guy, in particular, was making excuses under his breath, while he jumped in front of women and grabbed at the feet of other patrons to hoard those gumball souvenirs. I caught one and handed it to a girl and her boyfriend who had just been swarmed by that fool. As I left the venue, grown adults were still shamefully crawling around on the ground to get as many of the balls as they could. Some shows take me longer to write about and that’s often because some of them take me a while to process and figure out how I truly feel about them. It may be my Jewish heritage in effect again but, although I did enjoy the free show, I still left disappointed. That isn’t to say that the show wasn’t any good, because I’m aware that this disappointment is very subjective and relates to the specific preferences and expectations that I have as an individual. Then again, since I’m the one reviewing the concert, my preferences are the only ones that really matter. I made no effort to see DEVO perform at Lollapalooza in 1996, because I foolishly assumed that they would be following it up with a full-on tour. It then took me another 10 years before I was finally able to see my first show and, after seeing them again, I began to wonder if that played a role in why I felt that 2006 show was so much better than this one. In certain ways, I believe that it may have. The last time that I saw them, I was sitting up in the balcony of the Paramount Theater. Though my front row access provided me with a “better” seat this time, after watching videos from this recent performance, I realized that being so close may not have offered me as wide or complete of a view, regarding the stage presentation, light-sequencing, etc. Then there’s that pure excitement of seeing them for the first time that was lacking this time around. However, by that same token, that excitement was probably being added to the experience of many of those who you may find raving about this same concert. In some ways, my experience was doomed to be less than mind-blowing from the beginning because, although I love DEVO, Freedom of Choice is, by no means, my favorite of their records. Perhaps this growing tendency for bands to perform a “classic” release from start to finish is the fault of ATP and their festivals. It’s a good concept for an annual festival but, I have mixed feelings about these type of shows, because I’m not sure what considerations determine an artist’s “seminal” work. Freedom of Choice marked a huge transition for the band into a more synth-pop sound than ever before. The “de-emphasis” on guitars was further reflected in guitarist, Bob Mothersbaugh‘s name increasingly evaporating from the song writing credits. The song “That’s Pep” even sounds a lot like Steely Dan at points. “Whip It” helped propel the band, as well as this album, to the forefront of popular culture, but that doesn’t mean that performing the complete album live will provide a well-rounded show. Only 2 of the 12 songs on Freedom of Choice even extend beyond 3 minutes. This results in a minuscule overall running time and, subsequently, a concert that ended far too early. I am much more partial to the complexities and rawness of their previous 2 releases, than the more polished sound that they began to deliver in 1980. Noticeably absent are the epic, hybrid double-tracks like “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy” [Are We Not Men?] and “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” [Duty Now For the Future], which are two of my favorites from the group. The tracklist for Are We Not Men? is so amazing that the set would have felt like hit after hit. Unfortunately, this feeling was missing from the Freedom of Choice show that I saw. I enjoyed the opportunity to experience the concert, but I am still jealous of those who were in attendance the previous night. At first, I felt that I was having issues with objectivity, because of my love for the Are We Not Men? album but, by viewing footage from the previous night, I’ve realized that my less than enthusiastic opinions stem from something a bit more valid. DEVO‘s visual elements have gone through many transitions and incarnations over the years. That’s why it’s unfortunate that, when most people hear the name DEVO, their references are limited to the video with the “flower pots“. I felt that this Freedom of Choice performance successfully delivered that pre-packaged concept to those that desired it, but that it left the rest of us unfulfilled. From what I’ve seen of the first night, the performers seemed a little less enthusiastic to be performing this show, themselves. Based on photos and video, night one had more of a focus on props, costume changes, and interplay with the audience. They wore their patented, yellow radiation suits, which were ripped off of them in sections to reveal their Rollerball-esque, black T-Shirts, shorts, and knee pads look. This is the showmanship that I remember and miss from the 2006 performance. In addition to this, they brought out pom-poms and both of the Mothersbaugh brothers even entered the audience, at one point. They had additional lighting rigs, incorporated more of their disjointed dance movements, and even encored with “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA“. The show that I saw was for the masses, while the night before was for the slightly deeper fans. It’s similar to how Meat Puppets treated their fans to Meat Puppets II last year. If they had done Too High Too Die instead, it would have been the equivalent to DEVO‘s playing of Freedom of Choice. Then there are still those of us who would rather see Meat Puppets perform Up on the Sun and witness DEVO tear through their severely overlooked and under-appreciated masterpiece, Duty Now For the Future. Obviously, with such difficulty in obtaining a pass to either show, I didn’t exactly have the “freedom to choose” which one I saw. Still, it can be difficult to gain enthusiasm for a show when it appears like the performers may be losing theirs. This footage, from the same year that Freedom of Choice was released, is a prime example of what I wish I could have seen that night, but didn’t. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZXEVVX-RAw In 1981, DEVO was interviewed on the Australian television show, Countdown. During that interview, Gerald “Jerry” Casale was asked if he had any fears about DEVO gaining popular appeal among the masses. He responded to this by saying, “It deserves to become commercial, it deserves to become huge. It deserves to become the next thing, because we represent the way that a lot of kids feel” and “It’s our duty to be as big as we can be and still be viable. It’s the challenge. Y’know, how soon will you become ridiculous? How soon will you become the people that you hated.” For whatever it’s worth or whatever it means, I feel that the experiment was “successful”. This band doesn’t belong in the group with ‘80s one-hit wonders or humor rock. Regardless of if they ever get the recognition for it that they deserve or not, DEVO is a brilliant social commentary being delivered by misunderstood innovators that were ahead of their time.. They are more than a band, they are an institution and a greater concept. Although later releases may be found less appealing, DEVO never once let go of their central ideas about “De-Evolution” and their attacks on materialism and the destruction actually being created through creature comforts, quests for fame, and inventions known as “technological advancements”. This is further evidenced by post-DEVO work, such as Gerald Casale‘s Jerry Jihad and The Evildoers project. Even when taking on large corporations as clients, Mark Mothersbaugh has managed to do such things as slip subliminal messages like “obey” and “submit” into a Coke-A-Cola commercial. Gerald is a successful videographer and Bob 1 works at his brother’s musical production company, Mutato Muzika, where Mark has created the scores for Wes Anderson films (Rushmore, Life Aquatic, etc), TV shows (Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Rugrats), and video games (Crash Bandicoot, The Sims 2, etc). Recently, Mothersbaugh scored the film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and, with his consistent art gallery shows, I think that the members may be spreading themselves thin. I’ve watched video clips from other shows on this tour and it’s pretty clear that I caught them on an off night. Fortunately, an “off night” for DEVO still means a pretty solid performance, even if their domes aren’t pulling in much energy. The real test of viability will be the release of DEVO’s first full album of material in 20 years. The release date of the tentatively titled, “FRESH” is slated SPRING 2010. Below is the video for the album’s first single, “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)”, for anyone who has yet to see it. http://www.vimeo.com/4089275