The Brothers Mothersbaugh whip it good at the Ohio State Fair.
“How many people believe de-evolution is real?” called out DEVO bassist Jerry Casale during a lively performance at the Ohio State Fair on Wednesday. Perhaps no other venue is better suited for procuring anecdotal evidence for the band’s philosophy, as the fair was populated by a typical assortment of Ohioans representing a wide swath of the evolutionary scale. There to indulge their worst dietary habits were a number of vendors offering the signature fair food, which is anything that has been deep-fried. Beyond the traditional elephant ears, funnel cakes and french fries wafted the aroma of deep-fried candy bars, Twinkies, Oreos, Pop Tarts, peanut butter buckeyes and even garlic mashed potatoes. “If you fry it, they will come” seems to be the mantra of our state fair, and that may be as damning a tidbit of evidence for de-evolution as any.
How fitting, though, that amongst the fetid stalls of prize-winning livestock and numerous exhibits featuring the best of Ohio’s diverse products should be a showcase for the Akron band that was not only ahead of its time but ahead of its place as well. Promoting their recent release, Something For Everybody, DEVO is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and long-overdue recognition for a unique and enduring artistic statement. They gave their home state an entertaining set that demonstrated the compelling mix that they have offered throughout their career: incisive social satire and infectious songs delivered with great technical skill and an irresistible sense of humor.
Something For Everybody is such a strong and accessible album that DEVO could easily have worked more than half of its songs into the setlist, yet only three numbers (Don’t Shoot [I’m a Man], What We Do, and Fresh) were performed, all at the top of the show. Clad in their new reflective suits and gray “Everybody” half-masks, the band played in front of a video wall that displayed an unceasing assortment of vibrant graphics and classic images. Interspersed among the new tunes were 1982’s Peek-A-Boo! and a surprising unpromoted nugget from the New Traditionalists albums, Going Under. Lead vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh tweaked the lyrics for the occasion, singing “Down under where the lights are low, to a place called O-hi-o.”
The oscillating bass synthesizer octaves of That’s Good continued as a sequence after DEVO finished the crowd-pleasing number, allowing them a minute to shed their jackets to reveal black tees featuring a shoulder emblem of a blue energy dome, the conical hat that is perhaps the most recognizable of the band’s many icons. No longer red, the color of the classic headwear was modified to a more pleasing hue as part of the tongue-in-cheek focus group research that was conducted for the Something For Everybody concept. Despite the new shade, the sight of the band affixing domes to heads suggested a trip further back in their musical catalog, and a loud cheer greeted the opening notes of Girl U Want.
“Greetings, Buckeyes” announced Jerry Casale to predictable applause, “and non-Buckeyes,” he added diplomatically. “It’s 2010…and we are here to whip it again!” Rare is the band that will toss off their biggest hit halfway through the show, yet the decision made sense given the generally backwards chronological momentum of the setlist. It was followed by yet another surprise, Planet Earth, the infrequently heard final track from the album that spawned the previous two numbers. DEVO dashed off the stage afterwards, leaving the audience gawking at a satellite image of our planet that slowly zoomed out beyond our galaxy.
“Yes, Planet Earth,” intoned a ludicrously melodramatic voice-over narration, and thus began an enjoyable silly parody of Cosmos and every other production that has sought to astonish its audience by emphasizing the infinitesimal size of man in relation to the incomprehensible enormity of the universe. “And on this speck of dust…is DEVO, an insignificant blemish…”
The band emerged wearing the yellow suits they made famous during their 1978 nationwide debut on Saturday Night Live. Appropriately enough, they started this second half of the set with their infamously quirky cover of The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Then it was time for Bob Mothersbaugh to shine, singing lead vocals for their equally unusual take on Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man. Returning to the first album, the men in yellow delighted the crowd with Uncontrollable Urge, during which Mark Mothersbaugh compulsively tore at his and his bandmates’ plastic outerwear.
He’s got an uncontrollable urge…
There’s a reason why frontmen are accorded the title, and Mark Mothersbaugh demonstrated why he has earned the recognition during Mongoloid, a song to which he musically contributed merely a few bars on the synthesizer. Otherwise unoccupied, he grabbed a pair of orange pompoms and descended from stage left, winding around the security barricade and mounting an empty chair to encourage the audience with some ironic cheering. Midway through Jocko Homo, left to sustain a repetitive bass synthesizer note while the other founding band members shed their yellow suits, Mark elicited a laugh from drummer Josh Freese by dropping in the funky groove of The Ohio Players’ Love Roller Coaster. After tearing off his own protective gear, he again wound his way offstage, this time offering the microphone to fans in the front row, all of whom knew the correct answer to his repeated question, “Are we not men?”
The frenetic Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA followed, with Bob Mothersbaugh’s distinctive soloing meriting audience approval. DEVO closed their regular set with Gates of Steel, thanking the audience and leaving the stage. The DEVO Corporate Anthem video played on the big screen, then four-fifths of the band returned to start Freedom of Choice. Mark Mothersbaugh eventually walked back onstage, striking a series of odd poses as though exhibiting himself as a specimen of fine physique. He appeared decidedly bulky, however, and halfway through the number he pulled a towel from his shorts, dabbing at his forehead and crotch before tossing it into the crowd. A minute later, he produced another towel, mimed a gigantic sneeze into it, dried his armpits, and threw it out to the fans. Then came another towel. And another. And yet another, the face of DEVO entertaining fairgoers like a post-modern Harpo Marx. When the song was over, he left the stage again.
It was Mark Mothersbaugh’s last number for the night, for when he reappeared during the second verse of Beautiful World, he was costumed as his bizarre alter ego, Booji Boy. Dressed in green plaid shorts, a black tee with mirrored DEVO letters on the back, and a jaunty feathered cap, Booji warbled in his peculiar falsetto and swayed back and forth to the beat. When the band took it down a notch, he told a strange story about DEVO’s arrival from familiar Akron to the frightening streets of Los Angeles, where a limousine stopped and its occupant beckoned Booji inside. “It was Michael Jackson!” exclaimed Booji, relating his adventures at Neverland and suggesting that if only the King of Pop could rise from the grave a la Thriller and stagger all the way to Columbus, he knew what Jackson would say: “It’s a beautiful world!”
Booji Boy: “We played with llamas, ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and slept in sleeping bags.”
As the band vamped the end of the song, Booji Boy lifted his shirt to expose a front-loaded fanny pack, from which he produced handfuls of rubber super balls. Again and again he hurtled them toward the concrete floor of the arena, causing an explosion of color that ricocheted far out into the audience. This simple yet brilliant gimmick stirred the crowd into a frenzy, and I was grateful when the gentleman sitting to my right caught one and generously gave it to me. After all, what DEVO fan wouldn’t want one of Booji Boy’s balls?
After I followed the crowd out into the warm August night, Jerry Casale’s words about de-evolution sprang to mind. “You don’t have to look far for the evidence, do you?” And he was right. Just a little further down the main drag was a booth selling chocolate-covered bacon.
Yes, Virginia, de-evolution is real.
DEVO (l to r): Bob Casale, Jerry Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh, Mark Mothersbaugh