Ohio State Fair, Columbus, August 4
by Kevin J. Elliott

For many, playing the State Fair circuit can be seen as the desperate denouement of one’s sinking career. Flaccid dinosaur acts have become so synonymous with the summer tradition that it’s near Pavlovian to reach for cheese-on-a-stick whenever Molly Hatchet comes on the radio. But for Devo, it seemed taking center stage amongst the mass commercialism and grotesque “de-evolution” of America’s Midwesterners was the ideal fit. In their nearly 40 years of existence, many of the warnings Devo uttered regarding mankind’s eventual failure have come to fruition—one just need to peruse a midway full of obesity and trash culture to see that ’70s foreboding realized. Even when their first proper studio album in 20 years, Something for Everybody, seems to be repeating those same themes and slogans (albeit with a goofier grin and a knowing wink slightly above the parody of a Weird Al show) it’s hard to fault the band. Mark Mothersbaugh is a savvy businessman, and the initial chunk of Devo’s set proved this. The 2010 version of the band is slick and glossy, packed in clear, direct synthesizer casing and accented by a maximalist stage show, complete with updated costumes (blue energy domes) and screens blasting seizure-inducing video art of kittens, cheeseburgers, and bikinis. It was a well-executed transfer of product, an exercise that proved Devo is keenly aware of their place in rock & roll. A nostalgia act is fine, but Mothersbaugh, and his very spry brother Bob and bassist Jerry Casale are hoping you don’t mind the new formula.

The problem is Devo’s songwriting took a nosedive soon after New Traditionalists, so the selections from Something for Everybody, while entertaining as a spectacle of futuristic propaganda, only appealed to their geek squad of followers and those who found novelty in grown men putting french fries through doughnut holes. Thankfully Devo also know exactly what everybody else wants, namely the hits. For the rest of the set, Devo stripped away all of the aforementioned excess, returning to their roots and primitive beginnings and de-evolving, if you will, to a time when punk guitars and few atonal keyboard chirps did the trick. After tastefully tempered renditions of the ubiquitous “Whip It” and “Girl U Want” returned the crowd to a frenzy, they stripped away even more, donning the yellow hazmat uniforms of yore to remind us all as to why we felt obliged to stay in our seats for the duration. A definite highlight was the inclusion of Devo’s take on “Satisfaction.” More than anything else, it was the industrial quirk and automaton rhythm of this cover that defines the revolutionary sound that Devo pioneered. Here it was a unstable as ever, with Mothersbaugh stumbling to keep up, but then therein lies the charm of the song.

I’ll admit to having never seen Devo when they were at their peak, but I’d highly doubt what they did then wasn’t much different than now. Mothersbaugh and company designed it that way, so when the future arrived, our android spawn could play these tunes with the same precision as when they were initially written. Close your eyes and “Mongoloid” had the same jerky strut and jarring edges, “Gates of Steel,” the same soaring foresight and computerized heart, and “Jocko Homo,” the same dystopian humor and populous refrain. Devo know they could play anywhere to anybody and get the same response, and that’s likely why they continue, unabated, be it at the Ohio State Fair or following the Kings of Leon at Coachella. Their appeal comes from the understanding that we’re all in this together and by mocking convenience, consumption and modern conventional constructs, we’ll all get through it just fine, likely with flowerpots on our heads.