Last Night: Devo & Blondie at Arena Theatre

Blondie, Devo Arena Theatre September 19, 2012

What a week for New Wave around here. Psychedelic Furs and Go-Go's still to come, and Blondie and Devo teaming up for the "Whip It to Shreds" tour Wednesday night at the Arena Theatre.

New Wave is as good a term as any to describe a style of music that sprang up because another style wasn't working. It was the revenge of the art kids and the geeks, who never lost their love of '50s rock and roll and '60s pop and were smart and subversive enough to figure out a path through all the top-heavy stadium dinosaurs then cluttering the rock landscape.

What does that mean today? Both bands originally wandered off into other arenas of life, but must have found something they missed. For some time now, both have consistently found ways to keep both themselves and their audience amused, and Wednesday was no different.

Devo has grown into some kind of mad-scientist machine, with Eraserheaded-ringleader Mark Mothersbaugh manning a console that spat out sci-fi noises and other electronic strangeness. Wonder if he swaps AV repair tips with Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.

Stripping the more sophisticated technology of their March 2011 Warehouse Live show somehow made this one more fun. With no elaborate LED array and their animated video concoctions relegated to the screens above the revolving stage -- no bigger than a good flatscreen TV these days -- Devo was forced to fall back on guitars and keyboards, one young powerhouse drummer and four costume changes, from those famous day-glo firesuits to bowling shirts and knee socks. It still worked.

As crowded as the Arena stage Wednesday was with both Devo and Blondie's gear, and then with the band members zipping to and fro as their roadie periodically ran on and offstage, it was like someone tossed an episode of Robot Wars into a rock concert.

Maybe it was the timing. It was a good day for Devo to be here the same day the Space Shuttle Endeavour paid its final visit to Houston. Songs like "Whip It" and "Satisfaction" were like freeze-dried NASA pop, while their cover of Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" and the surf-rock/tribal beat of "Mongoloid" exposed an affection for '60s kitsch that receded in the face of the raging-id riffs of "Uncontrollable Urge" and "Mr. DNA," which offered a taste of what if feels like to give into your baser instincts.

By the end, the band had exposed its Rust Belt roots (Akron, Ohio) in the piston-like rhythms of "Freedom of Choice." Still other songs like "Jocko Homo" and "Gates of Steel" considered the nature of free will and what it means to be a human being versus a Neandrathal or an automaton. By masquerading as one (doesn't matter which), Devo illuminates the others.

Deep stuff, especially coming from middle-aged guys in plastic hats.

You want to talk about headgear, it took me a couple of songs to get over Debbie Harry's Tina Turner/A Flock of Seagulls coif, the same way it looked like it took her a couple of songs to work out the kinks in her ear monitor. But Harry is a pro and stayed cool as a cucumber as she and the rest of Blondie, bathed in gold to match her attire, plowed right in with "Dreaming" and "Hanging on the Telephone."

Blondie is so good they gave about half of the set over to last year's Panic of Girls with no loss of momentum or continuity. "Love Doesn't Frighten Me" "D-Day," "What I Heard" and the Latin-flavored synth-pop of from last year's Panic of Girls mixed in seamlessly among the more familiar "Call Me" and "One Way or Another."

To give you an idea about what Blondie thinks of their new work, they skipped "The Tide Is High" and "Sunday Girl." Call it a formula if you must, but Blondie has created a unique style out of pop, punk and disco that sounds as fresh today as it must have in 1978.

The real highlights were the gorgeous, incredibly arranged "Atomic," which infused swaths of Link Wray guitar around the pumping drums and bass, taking it away and bringing it back until it all ended in a "Freebird"-like jam.

The other was "Rapture," controlled by drummer Clem Burke's tireless beat and Chris Stein's Chic-like guitar until they broke into the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn." Try to guess what the crowd thought of that... and the joy that greeted Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax (Don't Do It) in the encore.

During "One Way or Another," the last song of the main set and one of several hard-charging rockers in a row, security had to remove an overexited woman who couldn't resist a little stage time herself not once but twice. Two different women, right back to back, almost on top of each other.

By then, though, Blondie had been priming those two and many others in the crowd for a while.

Personal Bias: Two bands I am glad to see in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when many of their peers who should be aren't.

The Crowd: If you grew up in the late '70s and '80s liking alternative music and live in Houston today, some 2,000 of you were there.

Overheard In the Crowd: "It's funny to see fat, middle-aged guys rocking out, isn't it" - in the men's room (shudder)

Random Notebook Dump: Shout-out to Ceeplus Bad Knives and Mr. Castillo for the extended Stone Roses jam during intermission.

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