Shortly before leaving for this show, I turned to my wife and asked her if it was wrong of me to be wearing a Devo shirt to a Devo show. "You're concerned with looking dorky at what is essentially a dork convention?" she answered. "Don't worry about it."
Now, I love Devo. Always have. Somewhere between Kiss and Killing Joke, Devo were my absolute favorite band. (Read my fawning appreciation for their first album by clicking here ). They were my first ever concert (Radio City Music Hall on Halloween of 1981, a show captured here by photographer Allan Tannenbaum....I've actually bought a similar print from this same show from the man himself). Sure, they tapered off, quality-wise towards the 90's, but they never totally went away; rather they were exiled into a state of financially-imposed hibernation. They'd still play out now and again, but such events were rare and usually on the West Coast anyway. Then, for their first New York City show in over a decade, Devo played in Central Park last Summer with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (a discussion about which, should you care, can be read by clicking here ). At that point, I hadn't seen them live since the autumn of 1988, playing in a somewhat downmarket club in their home state of Ohio (where I went to college). Sure, they were invariably going to be older, fatter and alternately greyer and balder this time around, but c'mon....it's DEVO! I had to go.
That show was a revelation. Defying both their encroaching waste-lines and Biblically inclement weather, Devo's performance in the park last summer was a positively religious experience. Tight as ever and boasting a hyper-kinetic stage presence most bands half their age can't claim, Devo delivered a set that was steeped in nostalgia but with a manic energy that belied the material's age. I practically wept. About 30 seconds after their final number (a stirring rendition of "Beautiful World" sung by Booji Boys), the band left the stage and an unrelenting ceiling of water fell from the skies (the rain stopped just prior to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, biding its time until the concert's end). My friend John and I were soaked to the bone by the time we made it out of the park, but it was a great experience all around.
When I heard that they were coming back this year, albeit at the comparatively antiseptic Hammerstein Ballroom (a somewhat humongoid shell of a space often blighted with dubious acoustics), I was initially skeptical. Skepticism turned to incredulity when I heard they were asking upwards of $55.00 for tickets. But via the good graces of a hugely accomodating and utterly fabulous industry contact, my friend John and I were once again going back to see Devo. How could I not, after all?
I've never had a great time at the Hammerstein Ballroom. I've seen some noteworthy shows there over the years (the first Bauhaus reunion, the Prodigy circa Fat of the Land, the Beastie Boys circa Hello Nasty!), but the not-so-great instances outweigh the positive ones (my friend Sean and I actually left a Massive Attack show there early because of both bad sound and a huge, unmanageable crowd, and I stupidly injured myself via drunkenly sliding down a banister at a mind-numbingly dull Verve show at the Hammerstein back in `98...although that was really my own fault, not the venue's). They're notoriously hard-assed about keeping patrons in their assigned areas. No one from the mezzanine is allowed on the floor and vice versa, no one is allowed in the aisles and there's absolutely no re-entry once you step outside. These stipulations are vigorously enforced via squadrons of yellow-shirted security goons wielding flashlights. Rock'n'roll abandon is kept to a firmly clench-buttocked minimum.
For this show, John and I were sequestered upstairs to the mezzanine. Nothing quite tempers anticipation for a live rock show quite like having to sit in seats. Couple that with the inarguable fact that this crowd was not exactly culled from the hipster elite (in other words, boy was my wife's assessment ever correct). While Devo's roots are as entwined with the foundation of American Punk Rock as Blondie's, the Ramones' and/or the Talking Heads', precious little of those bands' cool cache is evident amidst the Devo nation. Devo, ultimately, is a band composed of and -- more importantly -- for geeks. The average Devo fan makes the workaday Rush zealot seem like an original participant in Andy Warhol's Factory. And believe me when I tell you that the geeks were out in force this night. Being that I'm not exactly a stranger to geekdom myself, I was somewhat prepared for this, but John and I ended up sitting amidst a particularly robust strain that was enough to give us pause. Alongside folks sporting patented Devo finery in earnest (I too own an official energy dome and a yellow suit, although neither ever leave the apartment), there was one very excited gentleman wearing a banana suit later seen being escorted out early by another gentleman we assumed to be his psychiatrist. There was also one unfortunate character weaving through the aisles, yelping incoherently and not being at all well-tended to by his compatriots (who really ought to have been looking out for the poor fellow). Decorum and political correctness forbid me to describe this particular individual further, but I doubt that will stop John (read his account of this particular episode by clicking here ). To be fair, I did spot Moby up in the bar area along with us, but he's not exactly immune to accusations of abject geekery either.
In terms of the show itself, John and myself basically had a lot of fun. Despite there being no mention of it on the ticket nor the website nor the poster, there was an opening act, that being Vic Thrill & the Saturn Missile, an endearingly strange but still kinda shrill and not-just-a-little annoying local act who defy accurate description (you can find out more about them by clicking here .)
Though it seemed to last a lifetime, Vic's set was relatively brief and Devo hit the stage (after the requisite preparatory filmstrip) at 9pm. Almost an identical set to last summer's gig in the park, the band ran through material largely from their first couple of albums (highlighting their more aggressive work over their more streamlined later tracks). All went more or less routinely until touring drummer Josh Freese (erstwhile drummer of the Vandals, A Perfect Circle and very briefly a member of Guns'n'Roses), somehow managed to severely injure his left arm towards the end of the set. After some rudimentary first aid application, Freese gamely played through the encore with one arm (doing what John so charmingly described as "pulling a Def Leppard"). A truly impressive feat, especially for a gent who was really pounding the tubs into submission (original Devo drummer Alan "Human Metronome" Myers has been absent from the ranks since the latter half of the 80's). After a spirited sprint through "Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mammy," Freese eventually had to succumb and the show concluded (no rendition of "Beautiful World," alas). Given the circumstances, I was amazed that he lasted as long as he did.
I've been looking around the `net for a proper set list but haven't found an accurate one as yet. Suffice it to say, they ran through most of the favorites and some refreshingly less celebrated tracks like "Wiggly World" (a personal favorite, though "Praying Hands" would've been a nice treat too). No new material (though rumors of a new album abound). It seems Devo are content being what is ultimately an oldies act. But if they can still play with this sort've fervor, I can't see a thing wrong with that. Same time next year?