Jan. 14, 2012
Better than: Bands that try to cash in on '80s nostalgia without keeping up their chops.
Watching concerts from bands that were popular in the '80s can be really depressing -- or, in the case of Devo, incredibly energizing.
Since its formation in 1973, the band has only had a five-year period of inactivity (1991-1996), and that time spent on the road has yielded both technical proficiency and a playful chemistry among its members that's engaging to watch. On the second night of a two-day stay at the Fillmore, the members of Devo jumped, sweated, and dazzled with multiple costume changes, even undressing down to their skivvies at one point.Though we've had a sincere appreciation for decades that led to unconscious bouncing through popular cuts like "Whip It," "That's Good," and "Girl U Want," we apparently didn't know enough to head for the hills when Casale shouted, "Almighty spuds, the 'Uncontrollable Urge!" That's when the front of the reasonably gentle and nerdy crowd (average age range: 30 to 50-ish) ignited into a mosh pit -- one not unlike a similar pit we were caught in at a recent rap concert. We caught more smiles and willing participants in this pit's maelstrom, though. Moshing ensued through the next two songs, "Mongoloid" and "Jocko Homo," the latter referenced earlier in the night by local opening act the Punk Group's own ditty called "Tight End, Wide Receiver." During "Freedom of Choice," Mothersbaugh pulled out at least five pieces of pita bread with the group name written on them from his rear and crotch area, which was perfectly fitting for a band that was founded on the principles of regression. He pretended to rub himself and even sneeze on them before frisbeeing them into the audience. They weren't something we had any interest in catching, but we did get a kick out of landing a smiley-faced super ball chucked out during the finale. "How much freedom of choice is left, you think?" asked Gerald Casale at the end of the song. "50 percent? 40 percent? But Devo doesn't want to end on a dark note!" The last song was dedicated to the band's 39-year-old drummer Josh Freese, who has played in Nine Inch Nails, Guns N' Roses, Weezer, and the Vandals, and is apparently in love. "Beautiful World" was definitely one of the songs we waited for and expected to close out the show. But it managed to be a bit anti-climactic compared to the highs of the rest of the set, even with Mothersbaugh practicing his best falsetto through his Booji Boy infant mask and half-man, half-unicorn T-shirt. As in "Whip It," the group didn't seem to take as much joy in playing it as in almost any of the other songs. That might be because its apocalyptic predictions have pretty much come true over the past couple of decades. More enthusiasm was reserved for a final anecdote from Mothersbaugh, who recalled one San Francisco evening back in 1977. The band had just played "the Cow Palace or the Winter-thing" and were settling down to a post-concert "slumber party" with ghost stories and flash lights in the dressing room when the Sex Pistols came to meet them. "They were really nice," he said. "Sid Vicious was really nice, and then he died not long after, just like that." Mothersbaugh mused that if the lid of Vicious' coffin could be lifted up and the dirt pushed off the top, as in the video for "Thriller," that he'd dance down the middle of the Fillmore room, leap up on stage, and declare the content of his comeback. "I know what he'd say," asserted Mothersbaugh. "He'd say, 'It's a beautiful world!'" Critic's Notebook Personal bias: A tight Civic Center performance a few years ago left me with high expectations for the gig, and this was a superior show. Random detail: Devo fans are called spuds, and while we saw flowerpot hats aplenty, we didn't see anyone attempt to re-enact the group's famous potato suits. By the way: Gerald Casale has said that he's working on a script for a Devo musical.