During their late-’70s and early ’80s heyday, Devo managed to be both extreme and mainstream: The Akron, Ohio quintet’s 1978 debut LP Q: Are We Not Men? We Are Devo remains one of the most lyrically and musically radical records to ever crack the Top 100, while their 1980 release Freedom of Choice helped pioneer and popularize both synth pop and dance rock with the breakthrough hit “Whip It.” But as trailblazing as these New Wave sociologists were in the studio, they were more severe onstage. So it’s no small feat that 30 years later they’re now presenting both albums in full during a seven-city tour, not only with their live intensity intact but their theatrical savvy as well.
While performing Friday and Saturday at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom, Devo’s original members resembled senior chemistry professors with strange double lives. Singer Mark Mothersbaugh, guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh, and guitarist Bob Casale are now in their late 50s; bassist Gerald Casale is 61, yet all four had the stamina of their considerably younger drummer, Josh Freese of A Perfect Circle, and managed to replicate their original choreography. After a pair of vintage videos, the musicians took the stage Friday night in their iconic yellow plastic suits for Are We Not Men‘s opening track, “Uncontrollable Urge,” pivoting rigidly to the beat and peaking the song with the same robotic bunny hop they did in 1978. Their maturity made their movements even more surreal, and the demographically diverse crowd went nuts.
During the extended “baby baby baby baby” segment of their herky-jerky “Satisfaction,” Mark’s face turned bright pink as he spat every last endearment. While Gerald growled “Mongoloid,” Mark shook pompoms at the side of the stage, then pulled his still-thick hair skyward before tackling his famously noisy synth solo. After knocking out each album cut in rapid succession, Devo returned for a frenzied encore of “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” and “Gates of Steel.” The set was barely an hour long, but every note and movement was ridiculously tight.
Saturday night’s performance of Freedom of Choice was markedly less manic. An officious man in military garb strode on stage before each song with a sign designating the album track number. The guitarists played keyboards during many songs, and every member wore the Freedom era’s iconic red plastic “Energy Dome” hats; one abrupt movement and they’d fly off like Frisbees. This relative reserve on the band’s part conveyed ambivalence for its commercial peak. “How many people know track three?” Gerald asked with mock enthusiasm to introduce “Whip It.” The title track rocked much harder, and the audience returned the favor. For “Don’t You Know,” Mark glanced downward, seemingly reading lyrics off the floor.
Any detachment disappeared during an encore of Devo’s grinding early single “Be Stiff” and satiric Reagan-era anthem “Beautiful World.” During this last track, Mark wore his baby-faced Booji Boy mask and sang the entire song in that character’s Mickey Mouse-like squeak. “This was the first song we wrote after moving to California . . . It was really creepy,” he explained during an instrumental break. This tale turned fantastical as Booji/Mark recalled how Michael Jackson beckoned him into a limo at the corner of Hollywood and Vine for a night of Neverland fun and games. “If Michael could push his way out of his grave past all that dirt, I know he’d say it’s a beautiful world,” he declared before pulling handfuls of bouncing tiny balls out of his fanny pack. It’s oddly reassuring that Devo’s whimsy remains devious.
November 6th Set List:
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
“Too Much Paranoias”
“Gut Feeling/(Slap Your Mammy)”
“Come Back Jonee”
“Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’)”
“Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”
“Gates of Steel”
November 7th Set List:
“Girl U Want”
“It’s Not Right”
“Ton o’ Luv”
“Freedom of Choice”
“Gates of Steel”
“Don’t You Know”
“Mr. B’s Ballroom”
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