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.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray