At the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday, June 26
The post-postmodern men of Devo have been pointing out society’s regression for 40 years now, a point magnified early on with their 1976 art film/manifesto, In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution. Even before then, though, the band was working out skewed and subversive jabs against the norm in an Akron, Ohio, basement.
These were the oddities on display at the Commodore Ballroom on June 26 for the opening date of Devo’s Hardcore tour, a trip saluting songs written between 1974 and ’77 later compiled for their demo compilations of the same name.
Role-playing in front of a concrete-bunker-inspired set, bassist Gerald Casale and singer Mark Mothersbaugh started the night chatting about the fate of U.S. president Richard Nixon, approaching things at the Commodore like he was just about to resign, even though he’s long dead. Mothersbaugh discussed this using a robotic vocoder effect he’d retain for “Mechanical Man”.
While the intentionally cold opening mixed proto-industrial machinations, cog-cranking guitar scales, and lyrics about automaton practicality (“I’m a 2 + 2 = 4 man”), other early numbers were soaked in the warm-blooded sound of ’70s boogie rock. That said, the funky strut of “Auto Modown” and “Space Girl Blues” still lurched a little too far off-kilter to be confused with the Allmans, while cross-legged lead guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh upended the era’s cock-swinging rock misogyny on “Baby Talkin’ Bitches” with a limp and nerdy sneer.
Though well-oiled on the whole, the band seemed flustered on “Fraulein”, with Bob Mothersbaugh in particular having a hard time lining up loony licks lifted from Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” alongside drummer Josh Freese’s jittery beats. After slipping on powder-blue janitor jumpsuits, though, the mutant popsmiths delivered a near-perfect series of nervous, sexual-tension-driven tracks like the wetly lewd “Be Stiff” and “Soo Bawlz”, and a libido-frazzling take on the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”.
Mark Mothersbaugh was quick to point out that none of them had girlfriends back then.
Unearthed rarities like “Fountain of Filth” and “Stop Look and Listen” were sweet spots in the set, and bespectacled-and-bearded Mark Mothersbaugh delivered the night’s most horrifying moment when he cackled like a broken-down circus clown against the air-siren drones of “Ono”. It was the more familiar numbers, though, that had faithful spuds sporting red or blue energy domes freaking out hardest, whether shouting along to the call-and-response section of “Jocko Homo” or dancing the poot to “Uncontrollable Urge”.
For the encore, Mark Mothersbaugh’s rubber-masked alter ego Booji Boy capered his way on-stage with the assistance of a walker to sing the alien torch song “U Got Me Bugged” in an infantilized falsetto.
The night ended on a human note, with Devo dedicating “Clockout” to founding guitarist Bob Casale, who passed away earlier this year. Just as it did in the very beginning, the song’s rumbling bass line and Gerald’s sleazy big-business-castigating croon thrilled the hard-core fans.