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.
(Above: Rare footage from Devo’s first-ever concert in 1973.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
On May 2, 1970, Bob Lewis thought he had it all figured out. In just a few weeks he would graduate from Kent State University. He would come back in the fall and start on his graduate degree in anthropology.
The National Guard arrived on campus the next day and everything changed. There had been rumblings of unrest before. The previous year there had been a skirmish over the administration allowing the Oakland police department to recruit on campus. When the students tried to protest at the disciplinary hearing of the student organizers they were locked in a building and surrounded by the police.
But that incident didn’t compare to what happened on May 4, 1970. The details of the day are well-known: four unarmed students were killed by National Guard troops trying to disperse an anti-war rally. In less than 24 hours an entire generation entered a new paradigm.
“Devo wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Kent,” said Lewis, one of the band’s founding members. “If it hadn’t been for May 4, I would have gotten my doctorate in anthropology and taught or gone out on digs. Jerry (Casale, Devo’s bass player) probably would have wound up as a graphic artist or art professor.”
Instead, Casale and Lewis decided to channel their outrage at the system by holding a mirror to it. Informed by professors who had become friends, visiting faculty and articles such as “Readers vs. Breeders and “Polymer Love,” the duo started creating their own agenda.
“Devo, at least partly, was a joke at first. It was a lens we turned on society,” Lewis said. “The plan wasn’t necessarily to be in a band in the beginning. There was always a multimedia, subversive element.”
In 1972, after working odd jobs in Kent, Ohio, the duo migrated to California to write for the underground newspaper the “Los Angeles Staff.” In exchange for writing legitimate articles, Lewis and Casale were allowed to insert pieces of Devo propaganda. The paper quickly folded and the two were back in Kent that fall.
“Jerry and I worked on Devo for two years before Mark (Mothersbaugh, Devo keyboardist) got involved,” Lewis said. “At the time he was in a group called Flossy Bobbit, playing Hammond B3 organ, mellotron, Moog (synthesizer) and Farfisa organ all at the same time. The first thing we told him when he joined was that everything had to be simple and stupid.”
Mothersbaugh not only brought a higher level of musicianship to the group, but several thousand dollars worth of equipment, including a PA. Like Casale and Lewis, Mothersbaugh was a Kent State alum and was also present at the protest on May 4.
“Mark was two or three years younger than us, so I didn’t really know him,” Lewis said. “I certainly recognized him from school. I think he and Jerry may have had an art class together.”
Mothersbaugh was recruited to perform at the university Creative Arts Festival in the spring of 1973. The trio of Mothersbaugh, Casale and Lewis – who played lead guitar – were joined by a drummer from town, Casale’s brother Bob on rhythm guitar and singer Fred Weber. Billed as Sextet Devo, the band promised “polyrhythmic tone exercises in de-evolution.”
In the book “We Are Devo,” authors Jade Dellinger and David Giffels described first show, also captured on amateur video. Bob Casale performed in scrubs, Jerry Casale wore a butcher’s coat, Bob Lewis was hidden under a monkey mask and Mothersbaugh sported a doctor’s robe and ape mask. The set opened with Mothersbaugh playing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and featured what the band called a “headache solo.” Unsurprisingly, it took the group a while to find the next gig and a stable lineup.
“At one point it was Jerry and three Mothersbaugh brothers. Jerry didn’t like that because he’d always be outvoted,” Lewis recalled. “Jerry finally tormented Jim Mothersbaugh into quitting as drummer, but it took another year before we found Alan (Meyers) to play for us.”
When the group began to get more serious, Lewis knew the musicianship would have to improve. When Bob Mothersbaugh started playing lead guitar, Lewis transitioned from guitarist to manager.
“I became more of a manager than a player because we decided someone had to do it,” Lewis said. “I liked that other (managerial) stuff better anyway.”
The five-piece lineup of the Casale and Mothersbaugh brothers and Meyers toured Ohio with their confrontational stage show. In 1976 they were the subject of the short film “The Truth About De-Evolution.” The combination of touring and the film set the table for the band to cut their first single. “Mongoloid”/”Jocko Homo” was released in 1976 on the band’s Booji Boy label.
“We sold 17,000 copies of that single ourselves,” Lewis said proudly. “I was trying to get us in record stores in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and England, which meant I either had to get up really early or stay up really late to talk to these guys and convince them to stock us. Of course now you could just send an e-mail, but back then it was an adventure.”
The first sign of the band’s cult following appeared before a show at Max’s Kansas City when a flat-black oldsmobile 98 zoomed up the street bearing the face of Booji Boy, the group mascot. After the release of another independent single and an appearance on a Stiff Records EP, Devo caught the attention of David Bowie and Iggy Pop. David Bowie suggested a production deal through Warner Brothers that he would produce, and the band went to Germany to record. Bowie was unavailable, so his friend Brian Eno produced the first album.
“The band was in England recording while I was in the States trying to arrange for them to do some concerts in Europe on the way back home,” Lewis said. “Meanwhile, (Virgin Records president Richard) Branson takes them out on his boat on the Thames (River), gets them high and convinces them to sign with Virgin. Had I been able to, I would have told them they shouldn’t do that. Warner Bros. promptly sued them.”
Although Virgin and Warner Bros. amicably agreed to split distribution rights, it would not be the Devo’s final lawsuit. Lewis’ relationship with the band, and particularly Jerry Casale, had soured ever since Lewis told Casale that Devo would never be popular with him as the front man. It had to be Mark Mothersbaugh.
“From that point on I was on my way out,” Lewis said. “When Elliott Roberts, who managed Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, announced to Warner Bros. that he wanted to be manager, I knew I was gone, because then I was replaceable.”
Lewis received no credit or mention on Devo’s debut album “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” The album came out in 1978 and Lewis promptly sued for theft of intellectual property. With the band now located to Los Angeles, Lewis was up against a high-powered, label-financed law firm. Help came in the unlikely form of a cassette tape from a former high school newspaper reporter.
“Word had gotten around that I was suing the band and this person called me up who had interviewed us after one of our first performances at the Akron Arts Festival,” Lewis said. “This tape contained an interview of the band where he asked who came up with the Devo concept and Mark said ‘This guy right here, Bob Lewis.’
“When I played that tape at the deposition their lawyers looked like they had been gut-shot,” Lewis continued with a smile. “Shortly thereafter we reached an equitable settlement.”
Just as Lewis discovered he liked managing better than performing, he learned he enjoyed legal work. After managing a few bands to near-success, Lewis became a paralegal.
“I have the best job in the world. Essentially, I’ve been practicing law without a license for the last 30 years,” Lewis said. “The catch is I always have to work with a lawyer.”
Lewis left Ohio for Lawrence, Kan. in 1998 where his wife was working on her doctorate. Shortly thereafter the couple moved to Kansas City, Mo. Today, Lewis works as a paralegal for the Community of Christ Church in Independence, Mo. and lives in a house filled with antiques and art and a story behind each piece.
Last month Devo released “Something For Everybody,” their ninth album and first in 20 years. In the downtime, Mark Mothersbaugh has become a highly sought film composer. Mothersbaugh wrote the music for several of Wes Anderson’s movies, including “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” His brother Bob wrote the music for the “Rugrats” cartoon series. Jerry Casale, who directed most of Devo’s music videos, has also directed videos for Rush, Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and Silverchair. Myers left Devo in 1987; the drum stool is currently held by Josh Freese.
More than a generation after their lawsuit, Lewis said he is on good terms with the band. If he attends tonight’s show, however, it will be as a fan with a ticket purchased at the box office.
“It all depends on the weather,” Lewis said. “I e-mailed the guys the other day to let them know what they were facing here. I told them with as hot as it’s been it may not be a good idea for a bunch of 60-year-old guys jumping around in rubber suits. I’m sure they’ll be OK.”