Devo in concert in Chicago: At 50, no signs of de-evolution

CHICAGO — Toward the end of its show on Saturday night, Devo, which brought its 50th anniversary De-Evolution tour to the Riviera Theatre, finally asked the question I was expecting: Does everyone in this room believe in the theory of de-evolution? The signs are all around us, they warned. It’s the kind of light dinner-party quip you might expect from guys now in their 70s.

On the other hand, pop music-wise, the members of Devo were present at the dawn of de-evolution. You might even argue they popularized de-evolution. Science-fiction novelists and conceptual artists had been delivering visions of mankind regressing long before Devo crawled out of Akron, Ohio, but Devo committed to the concept, with costumes, videos and a stone-faced satire that reflected their roots. They were a cultural manifesto and also, incidentally, a rock group.

They were founded at Kent State University in 1970, as the campus was still resonating in horror at the deaths of four classmates, shot by National Guardsmen. Neil Young’s “Ohio,” his classic lacerating protest, would be released less than a month later, but Devo (who eventually collaborated with Young) adopted a far longer-term approach to disillusionment.

So long in fact that, just a couple of years ago, Webster’s dictionary finally got around to making the word “devolve” one of its words of the year. (The term “devolution,” however, dates back to the 1920s, probably to religious-based protests against teaching evolution.)

All of this runs through your head while watching a Devo concert in 2024.

And if it doesn’t, it should: Fifty years after forming, Devo has never broken into laughter at its own satire. At least not on stage. They sing “It’s a beautiful world we live in” before montages of extreme poverty. They still play their gloriously disrespectful, herky-jerky cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” They remain a dystopic mirror of pop pretense. They opened with a video of an oily record executive complaining that Devo was the worst decision he’s ever made, and yet, here they are, decades later, still “preaching to the converted.“ They walked out in matching windbreakers with “Reverse Evolution” on the backs; later, for the first of several costume changes, they wore their famous yellow industrial jumpsuits, and, of course, those red “energy domes”/flowerpots (and so did many in the audience). Mark Mothersbaugh, the leader and primary music writer, grabbed his microphone and stomped robotically to the edge of the stage, as angular as the music.

The joke — in 1974, and even more so in 2024 — is that they come off paradoxically more human than far more famous acts that sell themselves as authentic.

Which is also to say, they sound wonderful, tighter than tight, and since much of what they sang about 50 years ago — consumerism as a drug, corporate overlords, conformity, advertising — became the meat and potatoes of daily social media feuds and streaming TV series, it’s a bit easier these days to just enjoy how good some of their songs really are. And also how thrilling a guitar band Devo has become. Songs like “Gates of Steel” and even their signature “Jocko Homo” — with its campy sci-fi chant, “Are we not men? (We are Devo)” — showed off power chords that chuga-chuga-chugging guitar gods like Metallica would envy.

They feel streamlined now, for the better, less performance art than a solid act, and the beauty is that this hasn’t softened or simplified anything. It’s not just that they emerged from Kent State with an absurdist, Dadaesque take on American decline, but that they became a living, subversive protest, in their image and on their records. That refusal to even pretend to be authentic was radical in 1979, and it’s radical now. But what shouts louder are their bangers. “Uncontrollable Urge,” the first song of their first album, which has Mothersbaugh mostly shouting “yeah, yeah, yeahyeahyeahyeah, yeah,” still nails the rush of punk. “Peek-A-Boo” is still a surveillance warning minus the self-importance that would doom serious acts.

The “young alien types” they once celebrated in their songs are now parental units.

But nothing else about Devo feels old.

What I loved about them in 1979 was also what unnerved me. As odd as they were compared with, say, Foreigner, or even Talking Heads, they seemed to regard the audience as even stranger. We were the real aliens. They were responding in a sane, clinical way to an insane culture. That feeling’s still there. Mothersbaugh and Co. peered at the audience. Except everyone’s in on the joke now. With 50 years behind them, they’re now planning the next 50. They flashed a huge graphic promising: 100 years of Devo, coming in 2073.

Devolution be damned.