These day’s, it’s pretty common for veteran bands to dedicate entire shows to a single album. Everyone from the Pixies to Cheap Trick to Kraftwerk have jumped on that particular nostalgia bandwagon. What’s rarer is for bands to focus an entire tour around their earliest, most obscure material. But that’s exactly what DEVO have chosen to do for their Hardcore DEVO Live tour, which is based entirely on songs they wrote and/or recorded before the release of their first album, 1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! And judging from the audience response at the Wiltern Theatre here in Los Angeles last night, it was a smart decision. Turns out plenty of DEVO fans are super-excited to hear the band playing material that they mostly haven’t performed live in over 30 years.
There was no opening act, so the band took the stage promptly at 8:30 p.m.: Original DEVO-ers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, plus drummer Josh Freese, who’s been with the band more or less continuously since 1996. The stage set was cleverly made up to look vaguely like the Ohio basement in which the band started, with backdrops painted to look like cinderblocks, topped by translucent panels doubling as dirty windows. Mark sat at his keyboard reading a newspaper. “Nixon says he’s resigning,” he announced, his voice distorted to sound robotic and cartoonish. “I think 1974 is gonna be a good year.” Then he proceeded to hurl packs of cigarettes into the audience. “Got any Chesterfields?” Jerry asked. “I already gave away the one pack,” Mark quipped.
With the scene set and the hijinks out of the way, the band launched into “Mechanical Man,” the first track from the highly sought-after Hardcore Devo compilation that collected all their early demos onto CD for the first time back in 1990. From there the band proceeded to tear many of Hardcore Devo‘s best-known tracks: “Auto Modown/Space Girls Blues,” “I Been Refused,” “Bamboo Bimbo,” plus a few true obscurities like the bluesy “Beehive,” which someone at the Denver stop of this tour was smart enough to capture on film:
Serious DEVO fans probably also known this song from Jerry Casale’s Jihad Jerry side project, which revived the track in 2006. Throughout the Hardcore show, it was fun to see Jerry taking lead vocals duties as often as Mark—a reminder that, in the band’s early days, they didn’t have a true frontman. Bob 1 got a few turns on the mic, too, including “Baby Talkin’ Bitches,” one of several guitar-heavy early DEVO tracks that reveal the band’s roots in Midwestern proto-punk:
About midway through their set, the band got up from their stools and changed costumes, putting on the blue “workmen’s” suits and blue hardhats that served as their earliest band uniforms. From there, they launched into some better-known early tracks that definitely got the crowd more revved up (up until that point, apart from the one guy dancing like a lunatic directly in front of me, it was clear that most in attendance weren’t very familiar with the material).
This was the part of the show that included their brilliantly off-kilter cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” as well as several tracks from the 1974-77 era that eventually found their way onto Are We Not Men? and Duty Now for the Future: “Timing X,” “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Jocko Homo,” “Gut Feeling.” The crowd also knew many of the words to “Be Stiff,” a longtime live favorite, and “Fountain of Filth,” a punk rave-up with a shout-along chorus that could almost pass for a Ramones song. (In the video below, you can see Jerry wearing the creepy, transparent doll masks they donned earlier for “Jocko Homo,” another nod to the theatrics of their early days.)
They only played a two-song encore, but it was a pretty great two songs. First, Mark Mothersbaugh came out dressed as Booji Boy, one of the band’s early representations of devolution. This time around, he was dressed up sort of like a Teletubbie, in a pink hooded jumpsuit with cartoon eyes drawn over the hood. He also came onstage pushing a walker, perhaps an ironic nod to the fact that DEVO first introduced the character nearly 40 years ago.
After Mark’s solo performance of “Booji Boy’s Funeral” and “U Got Me Bugged”—definitely two of the weirdest songs in the entire DEVO catalog—the entire band came back out to wrap up the show with a rousing rendition of “Clockout,” featuring Bob Casale’s son Alex on bass. (A song they hadn’t played live since 1977, according to Jerry.) It was one of several nods to Bob 2 (and to late drummer Alan Myers) sprinkled throughout the evening, all of which felt fitting but never heavy-handed.
Overall, the band did a remarkably good job of keeping the show from lapsing into one big nostalgia-fest. The sheer rawness of the early DEVO songs probably helped in that regard, but so did the high-energy performances of the band. Even if they need to sit on stools these days to make it through a 90-minute set, the surviving Casale and the brothers Mothersbaugh can still rock out pretty convincingly for a bunch of guys well into their sixties. In my blurry Instagram photos, you’d swear they haven’t aged a day.
Since there was no opening act, the show ended on the early side, around 10:00 p.m. I heard a few protests from the crowd—a few people had probably hoped they would play some more “hits” in the encore—but as far as I’m concerned, the Hardcore DEVO show delivered exactly as promised. For the truly hardcore DEVO fans in attendance, especially that one dancing lunatic right in front of me (“How can you not to dance to this?” he shouted to no one in particular during “Ono”), it might have been their last chance to hear their heroes resurrect those songs they created back when they were a bunch of restless art students in an Akron basement.