I didn’t know what to expect at the Hardcore Devo show. I’d only seen them once back on Halloween night in 1981 at Radio City Music Hall, and they’d played all of their hits, including “Whip It” and “Beautiful World.” The Hardcore Devo tour was to feature no hits, instead focusing on songs they’d written and recorded prior to 1978 when they’d signed with Warner Bros. records; when they were essentially an experimental group playing colleges and small venues around their home state of Ohio.
True to the name of the tour, the Neptune’s sold-out crowd was packed with Devo-tees. It seemed like everyone there was wearing their Devo t-shirts, blue or yellow jumpsuits, Booji Boy masks, or other Devo-themed apparel. There also appeared to be many reunions of people, as if decades-old friendships came together whenever Devo was in town, and tales of getting hammered and screaming along to “Jocko Homo” in college dorm rooms resurfaced once again.
Devo hit the stage promptly at 8:15 p.m. sans opening act, wearing black Hardcore Devo t-shirts and jeans. The stage was designed to represent a basement, with cinder block walls and windows up at the ground level, mimicking Devo’s early days as a band of brothers (literally) coercing space-age minimalism from their synthesizer, bass, drums, and guitars.
Mark Mothersbaugh was the first onstage and slipped behind the keyboards to the right of the stage. Bassist Gerald Casale and guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh sat on stools in the middle, and drummer Josh Freese (who has played with everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Guns and Roses) held court at the left of the stage.
Opening song “Mechanical Man” featured Mark’s vocals, processed through the synthesizer to sound like an electrolarynx (like the talk-box that one with emphysema uses to speak), and after the song was over he tossed thirty packs of cigarettes into the crowd, stating “That song was written when smoking cigarettes was cool! Back then you only needed one lung to breath, and one lung to smoke!” In thirty-five years of attending concerts this was the first time I’d ever seen packs of cigarettes being thrown into the crowd.
Casale perused a newspaper from 1974, mentioning milestones like Nixon’s impeachment, to inform the audience about what was happening in the world when their songs were composed, just to provide some context, and perhaps to highlight how ahead of their time Devo was. Casale continued to refer to important 1970s milestones throughout the show, walking us through their creative time-capsule.
Their next seven songs, including “Bamboo Bimbo” and “Baby Talkin’ Bitches,” felt a bit plodding, and I was getting concerned that their obscure selections might only be truly entertaining to the most obsessed fans, but when they kicked into the funky “She Didn’t Know I Was a Midget,” things started to rock.
The band left the stage briefly, and reappeared wearing their light blue jumpsuits, and kicked into “Satisfaction.” No longer sitting on stools, Casale and Bob were free to unleash the classic and iconic Devo synchronized/robotic stage movements, much to the audience’s approval.
For the remainder of their nineteen song set, Devo brought out various incarnations, including Booji Boy, their freaky transparent masks, and their flower-pot hats. The hits “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Jocko Homo” were played because they were recorded prior to being re-recorded for their 1978 major label debut, and the adoring crowd sang along with every word. During “Jocko Homo” Mark jumped into the crowd and thrust the mic towards anyone who wanted to contribute a passionate “Are we not men? We are Devo!!”
Devo came out for their encore, and made a point of dedicating the show to the late Bob Casale (known affectionately as “Bob 2, and brother of bassist Gerald) who passed away last February. “We haven’t played this song since we did it at Max’s Kansas City in 1977,” Casale announced before launching into “U Got Me Bugged,” “this is for Bob.”
Though not the Devo we’re all familiar with (yellow jumpsuits, red flower-pot hats), the Devo that performed at the Neptune was close enough, and must’ve satisfied the expectations of every hardcore fan in attendance. Throughout the set the band members laughed, smiled at each other, encouraged the audience to sing along, and couldn’t help but to fall back into the choreographed stage moves and gestures they’d been doing for thirty years. Devo is their DNA, and always will be.