It's likely that many of those who attended Devo's South By Southwest concert came to see a nostalgic curio, a chance to see the ol' flower pot hats and whip-it good one more time.
They left seeing one of the breakthrough performances of a conference known for taste-making surprises.
With news songs in the works and a new album and documentary in the making, Devo came to Austin to let the music industry -- and fans -- know that it has a duty now to the present. Talk is cheap, of course, but Devo walked the walk at the Austin Music Hall with a visually dazzling and musically blistering 80-minute show in which it behaved like a young band trying to prove itself, not a bunch of mostly 50-somethings cashing in on sentiment.
The presence of some new songs certainly freshened the experience, and the quintet wasted no time introducing those. Following a montage of past videos on a large, slatted, rear-stage LED screen, Devo -- dressed in gray "cosmonaut" suits and day-glo orange vests -- lit into "Don't Shoot, I'm a Man," whose lyrics declared "vision is for chumps/high hopes is for fools" over an urgent, punky attack. "What We Do," positioned third, was bouncy and synthesizer-heavy, staring with a big "Yahoo!" and incorporating more social commentary. Two songs later, "Fresh" let guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh take the lead while bikini-covered bottoms flashed on the screen.
Devo's older material, meanwhile, sounded revitalized by its newer siblings and by the palpable enthusiasm the group has for playing together now. Give some credit to drummer Josh Freese, Devo's "new" member of 15 years, whose playing puts nuclear power in the band's engine room. Bob Mothersbaugh also played more aggressively than ever, and frontmen Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale have not lost much over the years.
Amidst those virtues, "Peek-A-Boom" slammed harder than ever and "Going Under" rode a throbbing synthesizer pulse. The red flower pot hats came out for "That's Good," and the barrage of hits "Girl U Want," "Whip It," "Mongoloid," "Freedom of Choice," "Jocko Homo" and offbeat covers of "Secret Agent Man" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" -- inspired more per capita pogoing in any one place since probably some time in the mid-80s.
The show's only misstep came at the end, when Mark Mothersbaugh, dressed as Devo mascot Booji Boy, chose to sing "Beautiful World" in the character's grating falsetto rather than his normal voice. But that was the lone downer in an otherwise head-turning performance that made de-evolution an easy concept to once again embrace.
Devo's South By Southwest setlist:
"Don't Shoot, I'm A Man"
"What We Do"
"Girl U Want"
"Secret Agent Man"
"I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)"
"Gates Of Steel"
"Freedom Of Choice"