Devo @ Club Nokia 3/19/11

During Devo’s set at Club Nokia on Saturday, bassist Jerry Casale at one point asked the crowd for a witness: “You all know now that De-Evolution real, don’t you?” As the screams of affirmation came roaring down from the balcony, Casale briefly resembled a mutant Oral Roberts basking in the glow of his congregation. “Are we not men?” “WE ARE DEVO!”

It is hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t remember a world before Devo just how subversive and game-changing they were. Today, they’re part of the pop landscape, and people who don’t pay much attention to music may remember them as a wacky one-hit- wonder eighties act with funny videos. But at the time, they inspired hatred from the defenders of rock tradition that came with a rare passion. They were the symbol of wrong, scary weirdness, to the point that “Devo” became the default insult hollered by grebos at punk rockers (eg: “Hey Devo, why don’t you let me give you a haircut!”) Never mind that the blue-hairs getting harrassed were more likely into Black Flag, or Siouxsie and the Banshees; grebos had never heard of those bands. The lines were broadly drawn, and those people that were on the side of Styx, Nugent and REO Speedwagon correctly recognized a threat.

And of course there were lots of us on the other side of that line who saw, for the first time, rock music that was stripped of all its macho cliches, replaced with a warped sense of humor, but kept the amphetamine kick and the big choruses. They were funny, they could be played by Dr. Demento, but they were also right about almost everything, at least for a few albums there. And unlike any old novelty act, thirty-three years later, they can still pack a room and get it to chant De-evolutionary slogans on command.

The set takes place in place in three distinct acts, each with its own period repertoire and costumes, and stays true to to the principle of De-evolution by moving backwards in time as the show goes on. The opening segment had the group attired in their market research-approved new outfits, looking kind of like Batman’s roadies in a shade of neutral blueish-gray. Songs from the new album Something For Everybody showed their brand of garage futurism to be well intact on tracks like “Fresh”, “What We Do” and “Don’t Shoot I’m A Man.” As the title suggests, they’ve identified what people want out of a Devo song, done the necessary research and preparation, and delivered. It’s a massive improvement on the three albums that precede it, in which the band seemed to have given up the ghost, as if to give credence to their own philosophy that we’re all headed downhill. Maybe there’s something to this idea of making albums by committee.

Many of the new songs sound like a harder-edged take on the sound they had at the time of 1982’s Oh No It’s Devo, simple melodies built from layers of synthesizers, so it felt natural to incorporate “Peek-A-Boo!” and “That’s Good” into the first portion of the show. From there, they donned their energy domes for a set of songs from 1980’s Freedom of Choice, including the inevitable “Whip It” and “Girl U Want” along with a surprisingly aggressive take on “Planet Earth.” These are the songs that benefit most from the live treatment, holding all their precision (largely thanks to the robotic swing of master drummer Josh Freese) but gaining in power and volume (largely thanks to Bob “1” Mothersbaugh turning his guitar way up.)

And finally, out came the yellow radiation suits and the early material. When the band appeared in late 2009 doing Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo in its entirety at the Music Box, they seemed to have tapped back into 1978, delivering a feral, physical performance more intense than any I’ve seen them do since their re-appearance as a Lollapalooza Legacy Act in 1996. This show didn’t quite match those heights in terms of animal energy, but any opportunity to wrap an arm around your buddies and sing “Mongoloid” together is always worth taking. And even if they weren’t breaking up the show into three segments, this would be the stuff to end with, just because it’s their best. Not too many bands have ever made a mission statement as potent and direct as “Jocko Homo”, during which Mothersbaugh explains De-evolution over a soundtrack that sounds like a transmission from another planet, before shifting to a hypnotic, irresistible football chant that gets the packed floor pogoing en masse. It’s enough to make you self-will your own mutation.