BY THOMAS CONNER
Is Devo sympathizing with humanity's plight, or just making fun?
In what was surely the most subversive set at Lollapalooza today -- Lady Gaga's still to come, but she seems merely flashy and bawdy rather than really subversive -- 1980s icons Devo blasted their modern folk songs about the plight of the working man and the diminishing of humanity in our automated world. Jogging on stage in gray uniforms and "Phantom of the Opera"-like half-masks, these plainly old men seemed to be rolling with the wonderment of being back at Lollapalooza, which they played years ago when it was a traveling festival (and even then were the quaint ol' vets). "It's 2010!" said Bob Casale, midway through a dynamic, multi-media set. "And we're here to f---ing whip it again!"
Singer Mark Mothersbaugh leapt about the minimalist stage -- just a drum set, two synth stands and guitars, spaciously arranged -- looking extra robotic, wearing mirrored shades over his mannequin mask. But though their music has the rhythm of machinery, these are songs about the sad and worsening state of man. Even an old hit like "Girl U Want" has Mothersbaugh singing, "Look at you with your mouth watering ... she's just the girl you want." It's a common theme to Devo songs, blippy and innocent as they may appear on the surface. Look at yourself, they say. Be aware of your "Uncontrollable Urge," fight against "Going Under." Pay attention, because Madison Avenue is exploiting your urges and your apathy to make you buy things. And, hey, so are we.
As they sang "What We Do" ("breeding, pumping gas, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, do it again"), silhouetted images of various product icons flashed on the screen behind the stage, icons like the PlayStation controller and other basic "necessities" being hawked several hundred feet behind the crowd amid a forest of logos. It's machine music about reminding ourselves that we are men, not necessarily de-evolving, and it sounds as important today as it did in 1980 when computers and synthesizers were newfangled. After all, as Mothersbaugh sang to close the set -- after jumping around with pom-poms, again either cheering this downward slide for our species or trying to empower us to reverse it -- "A man is real! Not made of steel!"
Devo was bookended late Friday afternoon in the south end of the field by opposite ends of the energy stream. The Big Pink played beforehand, defining dullness. A limited grayscale instead of a declaration of color, they whined through a short set of electronic drone and drudgery ("fall like dominoes, fall like dominos," zzzzz). After Devo, however, came the perkiest kids in indie-rock: Matt & Kim. Every now and then, one of these coupled drum-and-something duos comes along, but never as relentlessly cheery as Matt Johnson (vocals, keyboards) and Kim Schifino (vocals, drums). Opening with one of several instrumental fanfares they'd play, Johnson asked both Schifino and the crowd, "Are you ready to get wild?" It takes some doing to pump up a festival-size crowd when you're only two strong, but these two have tactics. Schifino smiles so wide and so hard its almost threatening, the kind of unwavering grin you can only learn in realty school or have drilled into you by Sue Sylvester. Johnson doesn't allow the keyboard to hem him in; he jumps, he kicks, he climbs, he strikes Grecian urn poses. He had to catch his breath after only the third song. The songs -- "Good Old-Fashioned Nightmare," "5K," "Light Speed" and, yes, "Lessons Learned" (the one with the video of them stripping down in Times Square) -- with Johnson's plunky, piano-lesson melodies, don't always live up to the party vibe of the hosts, but they throw a lively one nonetheless.