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q: are we not still devo?

devo are a bit of a strange bird. the huge majority of people remember them as the men in flower pots energy domes, responsible for "whip it" back in 1980 and subsequently held up as iconic geeks in pop culture.

on the other hand, the band has had a loyal fan base that borders on a cult, owing in large part to the fact that their infectious music serves as a delivery system for some pretty smart and complicated ideas, well ahead of their time.

personally, i always counted myself as somewhere between the two groups, but I live with someone who is proud to be among the latter, so when we found out that the band was including toronto in the itinerary of their tour, featuring back-to-back shows of the band's first and third albums performed in their entirety, it seemed only right to make the pilgrimage. (note for the geographically challenged: toronto is still damn far from montreal, so it is a pilgrimage and not a whim.)

the shows fall on a monday and tuesday, which normally aren't big concert-going days in toronto (a weekend-only place as a general rule). however, this apparently matters little to the cult of devo. we arrive at the venue just as the doors are scheduled to open only to discover that our taxi has to drive three blocks up the street to get us to the end of the queue. typical of my toronto concert-going experience, we get to stand outside in the late november chill for about 40 minutes past the scheduled opening time while the venue people... do something i'll never be sure about.

when we get inside, my significant other gets in line for the coat check while i haul ass for the venue floor in the hopes of getting a drink to warm me and a decent place where i can see the stage. once i get into the main room, my efforts go towards securing floor space because, it's obvious- even more inside the venue than out- that there are a hell of a lot of people at this show. this fact becomes more and more and more and more and more and more evident over the course of the next hour as i stand in place, getting hotter and more crowded, desperately waiting for something to happen.

when something does happen, it comes in the form of opening act jp incorporated. some of his retro-tv-cheese-takeoffs are reasonably amusing. the problem is that they're all about two minutes long and after about five of them, the knock knock joke has knocked itself out. and the set goes on for close to half an hour. the length of the set, combined with the amount of time people have been waiting and the subtropical temperature in the room does not leave the audience- who are here for devo and devo only- in a particularly generous frame of mind. jp takes the boos and hollers in stride, which leads me to believe that this is not the first such reaction he's gotten on the tour.

once the opening set is over, we get to wait again. by this point, i'm starting to have a bit of an anxiety attack brought on by heat and claustrophobia and then it occurs to me: this show could be awful.

i mean, these are not the spry young art punks i've seen in earlier videos. these are men in their late fifties and early sixties who are likely to have lost the twitchy energy that made early shows look so dynamic. furthermore, being a performance of an entire album, even an album as good as "q: are we not men?", the show will lack a certain mystery that comes from wondering what the band are about to perform. this is even more an issue for devo, whose shows are more like theatre- most songs having a set of physical movements and gestures that accompanies it at each performance that are as familiar to the audience as the guitar riffs or lyrics.

so i'm standing in the middle of an increasingly funky-smelling crowd, watching a spectacularly drunk kid spin clumsy pirouettes between the bodies (he ended up passing out near the bar about three minutes before the band hit the stage) and thinking that this could turn out to be a fairly expensive check mark on my big list of bands i've managed to see live. i try to console myself that it's kind of nice for once to be younger than the people i'm seeing on stage. (ed. note- this is not actually accurate. as it turns out, ├╝ber-drummer josh freese was born december 25, 1972, making him three months younger than me.)

after what seems like an eternity (sort of like reading this review so far), the lights go down and the show starts with a trilogy of very early devo videos. this is kind of traumatic for me, since my own first experience with the band, when i was about thirteen, involved being so creeped out by the video for "satisfaction" that i never wanted to have anything to do them again. (it took several years for this unease to wear off.) the audience is ready, the lights are up. and so the show begins.

the first thing that occurs to me as they kick into "uncontrollable urge" is that devo are REALLY tight. yes, they're professionals and yes they've been performing these songs for a long time, but there isn't a missed beat (or note) and, despite the potential pitfalls of having a show where everyone knows what's coming, there is an undeniable excitement in the room. this is the last stop on the tour and the band must know that the assembled sweating, squirming mass would be happy just to be able to see the songs and to add that check mark to their big band list. and still, there is an intensity to the show that i can honestly say i have rarely seen from any other group. three songs in, front man mark mothersbaugh jumps right off the stage into the audience (the first of two times he does so), eliciting shrieks of delight from everyone except the roadie charged with having to pull him back out. (i sort of regret not taking a snapshot of the pants-crapping expression on the guy's face.)

it helps that mothersbaugh still looms larger than life. in contrast to the band's geeky image, he and bassist (sometime vocalist) gerald v. casale are huge presences on the stage (with huge voices to match). in fact, whereas time and age sometimes blunts the edges of many musical icons, in this case, the passage of years makes the band seem less like a quirky group of musicians and more like quasi-religious prophets preaching to a very, very passionate congregation. (during the anthemic "jocko homo", the noise of the crowd screaming the lyrics was so overwhelming that i could barely hear the band at times.)

by midway through the first track, i don't care about the heat, my aching ankles, the smell or anything else. within a half hour, if you'd asked me what city i was in, i would have had to think about it (assuming that i could have torn my attention away even for a minute).

as with all great shows, the incredible energy on the stage becomes infectious to the observers. once the first show draws to a close, we very nearly jog from the venue, end up closing a local bar and are so brimming with energy that it's difficult to make ourselves get the sleep we will need to survive show #2. overall, i think the first show is summed up best by a comment gerald v. casale made between songs: "that was fuckin' punk as hell."

we make a point of arriving earlier the next night not because we hope that this will mean getting in any earlier, but because i'm 5'2" and anything i can do to get closer to the stage is a good thing. we're hopeful that things will move faster on the second night and that the issues on monday were more to do with technical problems. well, i can at least say that the theory of showing up earlier would result in a better place in the crowd was golden. of course, now the trick is that we get to stand and wait for even longer than the night before.

at first, it looks like the "freedom of choice" show is undersold when compared with the night before. part of this, i realise right off, is because someone in a position of power, has discovered the "on" switch for the air conditioning, which means that the body heat generated by the crowd is more subdued. but another part of it is that, unlike my boyfriend and i, many are betting that things will unfold much as they did with the night before, meaning that they will trade a place near the stage for not having to wait for a long period of time and to sit through an opening act.

the thought that the previous night's delays were somehow technical turn out to be a pipe dream. we stand shoulder to shoulder for every minute that we did the night before, only to be greeted, finally, by jp incorporated, who does THE SAME DAMN SET as he did the first night. i guess it's a blessing for him that the crowd for the second night is somewhat less hostile. for my part, i'm in groundhog day territory.

during the gap between opener and headliner, my life changes. as we're waiting for the band to arrive, listening to the strains of the devo easy listening album warble in the background (as it had between sets the night before), my boyfriend proposes. i think that he's practicing the down on one knee gesture or something until i hear some girl in the background squeal "oh my god is he proposing?" he had meant to do this during "girl u want" which is going to be the first song of the night. however he assumed, based on the night before and the increasing density of the crowd around us, that this could be difficult and potentially dangerous. so instead of getting engaged during "girl u want", the magic moment occurs to the strains of "mongoloid". you just know it's going to be a crazy night.

the second show has some restrictions placed on it from the outset. songs that rely much more heavily on keyboards mean that the band members, particularly mothersbaugh and casale, are anchored to a certain place on the stage and cannot roam wild as they did the night before. that said, the performance is polished to diamond clarity (get it? diamond? i got engaged?), possibly even more than the previous night. it's heartening to me that, when the moment comes for their big hit single ("who knows what song number 3 is?" casale booms), it becomes apparent that, while everyone is happy to be there, there aren't any attendees who have showed up just to hear "the hit".

tonight's encore is particularly special, featuring an appearance by booji boy, the baby-man adjunct of the band who has been with them since their earliest days. psychology experts could have a field day with this character, with the inherent blend of innocence and worldliness encompassed in him. (and it could not be more appropriate that he chooses to speak to the audience about michael jackson, a superstar with a similar affliction of traits.) the resulting effect is almost overwhelming, unnerving and reminds me of that initial "aaaaaaaaaagggggggggggghhhhhhhhh what the hell is that?" reaction i had to the band all those years ago. when was the last time you went to see a band live that moved you? despite its inadequacy, i can't think of a better way to express that. and i like to think i'm good with words.

in the glorious aftermath of this show, my boyfriend fianc├ę and i get the opportunity to make our way to the vip/ afterglow area of the club, where the truly zealous members of the audience get to meet with the band. as if this isn't already going to be one of the most memorable nights of my life, it's capped off by getting to shake the hand of mark mothersbaugh. aside from a complete absence of any rock star attitude (even in a room full of people who are one step away from kneeling to kiss his ring), one of the things that's immediately obvious about him is that the eccentricity that seeps from him on stage and in recordings is in no way a put on. what one sees live is very much what one sees close up. the boundless energy and unpredictability seems temporarily compressed to human proportion.

that's it. that's all i can say about these shows. which is kind of paltry and sad, because no matter what i've written (or how much), i'm not going to convey the feeling, the remarkable feeling, of actually being there. you've heard people tell you that "you had to be there". it's the standard excuse when one gives a feeble account of a profound experience. you know it was brilliant, that it was mind-blowing and yet you struggle to articulate it. once you've gone through the experience, whatever you say about it afterward is, as a very smart man once said "just wind in sails".

put it this way: i went in a curious fan and came out a born again member of the congregation. that takes something special.


helainenhudson said…
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Stuart Gardner said…
Thanks for these detailed reports; I was very interested. I found this, of course, via the link at the end of your fine Mothersbaugh interview in Paraphilia, which I found via the link you Tweeted. I'm glad to be able to ask this of someone who atteneded shows of both Are We Not Men? We Are Devo! and Freedom of Choice performed live: Were other songs done after the last song from each album? If not, this made for rather brief concerts, correct?
flora_mundi said…
hey stuart- glad to see you were able to find your way through the jungle of links and tweets.

the shows were not especially long, but, yes, each had a couple of encores. believe me, what it lacked in size it made up for in quality. (usually it's men that say that.)

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