Show Review: Devo with The Punk Group at the Fillmore, 1/14/2012

by Jonathan Pirro on January 15, 2012

Are they not men? They are DEVO!

Are they not men? They are DEVO!

While there is all manner of serious business involved in a tour, a concert, or even a single small show at a tiny club down the street, there’s no reason to think that the performers involved can’t have a sense of humor about their craft. To enter a career where one spends a great deal of time under a many-headed microscope, subject to all form of criticism and judgment, it’s a stifling gig to churn out a repetitive set, stick to the shadows, and keep your eyes to the floor as if you’re just waiting for the experience to end. It makes far more sense to abandon that sense of self-severity in the name of fun and celebration, to embrace the rock concert as the spectacle it has always been revered as, and to explode with enthusiasm for every minute of the evening. This is a job best suited for seasoned veterans, as well as musical acts that decide to live outside the realms of defined genres and formulaic sounds — and the Akron, Ohio quintet known as Devo proved themselves more than up to the task.

Brian "Sex Object" Applegate of The Punk Group

Sex Object from The Punk Group

It’s a tall order to fill the shoes of the band that will open for the exposition of chaos and mayhem that is a Devo performance, but The Punk Group, a darkly-clad and sunglass-masked duo from Portland, took to the task with flying colors. Marching robotically onstage right around the hour of 9:00pm, they took up their guitar and bass, and a switch was flung to start a set of backing electronic tracks which they grooved and moved over with brilliant efficiency and a charmingly stoic presence. Never revealing their faces to the audience, the duo of Brian “Sex Object” Applegate and Tony “The Model” Cameron brought a collection of dancy, enthusiastic synthpop tunes, most of which were paired with wildly bizarre or smirkingly humorous lyrics. A few extra surprises were thrown in, such as the disappearance of their instruments to hold metal pipes for “Fat Girls On Bicycles” (each pipe was armed with a bike bell), and a few outfit changes for the end of their set. It was hard to not get caught up in the infectious energy and festive mood that the pair brought onstage. Audience members would switch from an intense visage of concentration while dancing, to a wide grin or raucous laugh the moment the band’s lyrics drifted through the speakers, and the Punk Group solidified themselves as quite the choice for an opening act by the time their set had ended.

The Model introduces Sex Object at the end of The Punk Group's set

The Model introduces Sex Object at the end of The Punk Group's set

After the crowd had gotten warmed up for the first half hour of the night, it was important to keep the energy level up, and while the Punk Group had been equipped with matching street outfits and a set of tall light bars, Devo kicked the performance art into another dimension entirely, with the entire back wall of the Fillmore’s stage shimmering to life in the form of a titanic screen made from hundreds of tiny lights, and the band clocking into their 10:00pm entrance dressed in space suits and gray masks, with blooms of light exploding around them as the crowd wildly bellowed in celebration. Anyone who might have had reservations about the staying power of a band that, this year, should be celebrating their 40th anniversary, was knocked out of the water within the first quarter of the set as Mark Mothersbaugh and the rest of the Devo crew blasted across the stage, displaying a torrent of furious dance moves and airborne gesticulations under bright and colorful hues that swathed the stage like an ever-shifting rainbow.

Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo

Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo

After a quick-fire six-song assault, mostly filled with tunes from the group’s 2010 release Something For Everybody, the men of Devo made their first costume change of the night in a surprisingly vigorous manner. Discarding the space suits and masks and donning their classic dome hats and group-name-emblazoned T-shirts (updated with their modern blue-and-white swatches), they leapt right into their three most well-known tunes, “Girl U Want”, “Whip It” and “Planet Earth”, all classics from their 1980 magnum opus Freedom Of Choice. The end of this brief trip down memory lane, and the second subsequent wardrobe transformation that followed, would prove to set the pace for the night, which saw the quintet go through a total of five different sets of outfits, in all manner of transitions. A video of a journey through the cosmos allowed Devo enough time to switch into a set of bright yellow suits, looking for all the world like plastic-covered fiberglass insulation, and those costumes were removed by Mothersbaugh, tearing them off in shreds and hurling the pieces out into the crowd, before the entire band completely abandoned the outfits and threw them into the overjoyed audience.

Bob and Gerald Casale of Devo

Bob and Gerald Casale in their tear-away suits

While onstage spectacle and riotous shenanigans were a sizable chunk of the show, Devo’s musicianship was absolutely not eclipsed by their otherworldly antics. Mark Mothersbaugh was equipped with all of the vocal magnificence that he had been displaying for four previous decades, even while doing double duty as the charismatic, frenetic frontman of the group. His brother Bob, mostly the least animated member of the group, kept up the sonic backbone of the set, with furiously tight riffs and gloriously soulful solos, and a few moments of dynamite insanity thrown into an otherwise cool and contained performance. The Casale brothers bounced back and forth on the energy meter throughout the show, taking over electronics, backing guitar, and an upbeat bass groove that beheld the classic yet unclassifiable sound that Devo is so well known for. The casual observer would never have suspected drummer Jeff Friedl as being the newcomer to the group, for he displayed a talent for rhythm and percussion that was both rock solid and thunderously powerful without being wildly ostentatious. Here was a group of five that knew their songs through and through, and tore through every song of the set as if it was their final encore of the night.

Bob Mothersbaugh in the final "outfit" of the night

Bob Mothersbaugh in the final "outfit" of the night

Devo’s set was a treat for the casual listener as well as the hardcore fan, spanning across decades to grab tunes from their first album, their newest work, and several special numbers from other years between peppered throughout. The band used some songs from Something For Everybody, and a few choice tracks from Oh, No! It’s Devo, to solidify the opening set of songs that kicked off the performance. The band’s appearance in their yellow plastic suits was marked with their bizarre but jocular covers of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Secret Agent Man”, the latter of which deviated hilariously from the original in its lyrics and energy. The biggest response of the night came when the first half of their debut Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! was played nearly in its entirety, with “Uncontrollable Urge”, “Mongoloid” and “Jocko Homo” turning the crowd into a churning frenzy as they tossed about the shredded remnants of the band’s costumes. The night was finally brought to a magnificent close just before the stroke of 11:30pm: a blisteringly solid performance of “Freedom Of Choice” was followed by a sonic onslaught in the form of “Beautiful World”, with Mothersbaugh returning to the stage in his Booji Boy persona for a nearly-10-minute version of the song that saw picks, drumsticks, and even rubber bouncing balls hurled into the audience as the night came to a close.

Mark Mothersbaugh as the Booji Boy

Mark Mothersbaugh as the Booji Boy

I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the Fillmore tonight to witness a Devo concert, and I left with a stirring and joyous sensation in every inch of me — and I would describe myself, at best, as a casual listener of the band. Every moment of the show, while no doubt meticulously thought out, was brilliant in its showmanship and musical precision. From the opening workout and marvelous set from The Punk Group, to the epic set and explosion of stimulation that was the Devo performance, the entire night seemed to be alive, the vitality of the show dominating all of my senses. Let those who only respond to the name of Devo with a raised eyebrow or an ironic gesture be swayed; this quintet is still a whirlwind musical force to be reckoned with, and here’s to them sticking around for another 40 years.

Devo's setlist

Devo's setlist

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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