By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Devo deserved better. Kudos to the local radio station for adding them to their Buzz Under the Stars lineup at City Market on Friday night, but the pioneering synth-pop band merited more than a 50-minute set shoehorned in with four other acts.
The five-piece band hasn’t played Kansas City in some time, and many in the crowd were seeing the band for the first time. They weren’t hard to spot. Many were sporting the group’s trademark blue energy dome hats that look like inverted Lego flower pots. Several more knew the precise moments to mimic singer Mark Mothersbaugh’s choreographed hand signals. At times they looked like a group of subversive air traffic controllers.
The five-piece band took the stage wearing matching gray suits with half-masks that looked like berets extending over the eyes. The kinetic keyboard riff to “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man)” a track off the band’s first album in 20 years, showed they hadn’t lost any of their zany energy during the time off.
Music was only part of Devo’s multimedia message. A large LED screen behind the quintet showed clips from past music videos and footage designed to amplify the songs. The footage during “What We Do” commented on mass consumption and the arbitrary nature of elections as partying humans gradually regressed into simians. Another new song, “Fresh,” featured rapid-fire images of fruit and a bikini-clad derriere.
The diverse lineup prevented the crowd from completely gelling with the music for most of the night. The one exception came during “Whip It,” Devo’s Top 20 hit from 1980. For three minutes, everyone was a Devo fan, whipping the air and singing along.
The final third of the set was an about-face. Synthesizers were replaced with guitars as the band embraced the punk roots of its first two albums. Dressed in yellow radiation suits, the band delivered wonderfully sideways covers of “Satisfaction” and “Secret Agent Man.” Closing song “Jocko-Homo” found the crowd answering Mothersbaugh’s question “Are we not men?” with the hearty “We are Devo.” And then they were gone.
The transition from Devo to Silversun Pickups was jarring. The Los Angeles-based quartet opened with the dreamy wash of “Growing Old is Getting Old.” Their very vocal supporters made a lot of noise during a great performance of “There’s No SecretsThis Year” that somehow managed to find dynamics and texture in an abysmal sound mix.
Guitarist and singer Brian Aubert also gave a shout-out to all the fans that came out for the band’s free St. Patrick’s Day show at the Power and Light district last year. The 50-minute set ended with a run through three of the band’s biggest singles: “Substitution,” “Panic Switch” and “Lazy Eye.”
Ben Folds closed out the night. His one-hour set included favorites like “Kate” and “Annie Waits.” Accompanied only by his piano, the crowd was more than happy to pitch in. They sang all of Regina Spektor’s part on the duet “You Don’t Know Me,” provided three-part harmony to “Not the Same” and participated in a joyously profane call-and-response during “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” Folds also sang “Levi Johnston’s Blues” a track from his upcoming album, and rarities “Steven’s Last Night in Town” and “The Secret Life of Morgan Davis.”
Against Me! and Crash Kings completed the evening’s bill.
Devo setlist: Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man); Peek-A-Boo; What We Do; Going Under; Fresh; That’s Good; Girl U Want; Whip It; Planet Earth; Satisfaction; Secret Agent Man; Uncontrollable Urge; Jocko-Homo.