Thursday, June 21, 2007

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are DEVOTees

Devo Live at Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown, June 19th 2007

The newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall doesn’t exactly look transformed, although it has to be noted that the seats are now considerably more comfortable. It’s a great venue for classical music, folk and jazz, but a rather staid atmosphere for many of the acts Jarvis Cocker has selected for Meltdown. It’s interesting to note just how many of these artists are recently reformed or coaxed out of semi-retirement. There’s Iggy and the Stooges, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Melanie, Roky Erikson and, of course, Akron, Ohio’s greatest cultural export, art-rockers Devo, performing in the UK for the first time in seventeen years.

Devo are one of a small selection of bands that have influenced my life from the very formative years. I remember a tape put together for me by a rebellious childminder, which included a couple of David Bowie’s 80s moments, plus the first half of Devo’s Brian Eno-produced debut LP ‘Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo’. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t the first idea about the band’s concept of De-Evolution then, but I found the chanting choruses, angular rhythms and infectious hooks highly exciting. So, seeing the band live for the first time ought to have been a revelatory experience – uniting that rush of childhood enthusiasm with my later admiration for their conceptual wackiness.

In many ways, the show doesn’t disappoint. The band put on an absolutely fantastic show, beginning with an absolutely hilarious intro film which begins ‘So, you’ve decided to see a Devo performance…a wise decision…’ The band then leap to the stage in their customary yellow jumpsuits and ‘energy domes’ (staggering that so many purchased them for £18 from the merchandise stall when they are essentially just adapted plastic plantpots). They may look a great deal older (and considerably fatter in the case of Mark Mothersbaugh), but they still have plenty of energy, as the thunderous opening rendition of ‘That’s Good’ amply demonstrates. There’s plenty of instrument swapping throughout, with Mark Mothersbaugh frequently running across the stage to play out one of their trademark synth riffs before running back to centre stage again. The lighting is intelligently synchronised and the crowd are rapturous throughout, gamely trying to dance to their many songs with unexpected switches of time signature.

I make the last point not to sound like a muso, but rather to highlight that Devo had a rare rhythmic invention mostly lacking in their post-punk peers. As I recall, even on their more overtly produced 80s albums, the drums sounded motorik, but dry. It may have been that the Festival Hall has acoustics unfavourable to a big rock band, but they sounded imposing and boomy here, with far too much stadium reverb applied. As a result, the drums (played ambidexterously but unsubtly), all too frequently predominated in the mix, a problem not helped by the lack of definition in the mostly overdriven guitars. It sounded a little odd to hear Devo’s jerky, mostly weird songs refashioned, whether intentionally or not, as power rock assaults. Still, the vocals sound great, and the unusually responsive London crowd more than compensate for these niggles.

It would also be churlish to complain about the setlist, which is unashamedly nostalgic (there’s no new material yet) and strikes a shrewd balance between obvious favourites like ‘Girl U Want’, ‘Whip It’ and ‘Joko Homo’ and slightly less predictable selections like ‘Secret Agent Man’, ‘Mr. DNA’ and ‘Wiggly World’. The crowd participation reached its peak with the call and response coda to ‘Jocko Homo’, by which point the band had disrobed from their jumpsuits to reveal spectacularly tasteless black hockey outfits, complete with bizarre kneepads.

It’s all tremendous fun, with Mothersbaugh particularly in great voice. The encore is brilliant, with the band not only replicating the segue between ‘Gut Feeling’ and the outrageous ‘Slap Your Mammy Down’ but Mothersbaugh also rejuvenating his Booji Boy alter ego, complete with costume, for ‘Beautiful World’. Is it any wonder that this is the same man who composed the Rugrats theme tune?

An additional pleasure involved catching the post-concert foyer performance from Bishi, who has now assembled an excellent band featuring Zongamin, Matthew Glamorre, Fidel Villeneuve from the Applicants, an excellent tabla player and my musical co-conspirator Brendan Pickett. It was a sadly brief set, but Bishi’s voice, and gold lame costume, were sublime.

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