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The Devolution of Clifton Park: Devo at Northern Lights.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Hat Band

By Kirsten Ferguson

Devo

Northern Lights, July 31

Prior to the Devo show at North ern Lights on Saturday night, scanning the crowd for “Devotees” of the band was an entertainment unto itself. Fans in Devo radiation jumpsuits or with Devo tattoos wandered about, as did a cute-as-all-get-out father-and-son pair in identical Devo uniforms of black T-shirts and shorts, red knee pads and pyramid-shaped energy hats. It was like Halloween without all the bad bloody-zombie and slutty-devil-lady costumes.

Devo are clearly a band who inspire a level of devotion among fans, thanks to their compelling blend of futuristic kitsch, subversive humor and twitchy new wave that never seems to go out of style. Anticipation for the band’s arrival onstage ran high as the number of concertgoers wearing plastic Devo energy hats multiplied (they were on sale at the merch table for $30).

And Devo didn’t disappoint. In front of a flashing red strobe and a grainy computerized video backdrop, the five members of Devo—brothers Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, brothers Jerry and Bob Casale, and new drummer Jeff Friedl—came onstage to cheers. Despite their stated belief in “de-evolution,” or the regression of humankind, Devo’s sound and look has actually evolved over time (or perhaps devolved). The band’s new uniforms are gray with matching masks, their traditional red energy hats have been updated to “focus-group tested” electric blue, and their new album, Something for Everybody, has a contemporary electropop sound.

The band hit the most synth-heavy songs in their repertoire early on, including three from Everybody, their first album since 1990. New song “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” name-checked both hybrid cars and the au courant catchphrase, “Don’t tase me, bro,” while “What We Do” had a postmodern industrial dance beat.

Despite the up-to-date references, the band—going on 37 years now since forming in Akron, Ohio, in 1973—looked their age in certain ways: Mark Mothersbaugh’s gray hair and brainy spectacles made him look like the mad, aging genius that he is. But as band members ran vigorously in place onstage, or broke out synchronized karate chops for “Peek-A-Boo!,” their perpetual willingness to entertain by being ridiculous—no matter how old they are—seemed all the more charming.

A costume change into blue hats and black Devo shirts brought about the awesome one-two pairing of “Girl U Want” and “Whip It,” which could have set up an anticlimactic second half of the show since both hits are likely encores. The show only got better from there, though.

With an image of Planet Earth on the video backdrop and a disembodied voice welcoming “your fellow travelers in space and time, Devo” back onstage, the band returned from a momentary break wearing yellow plastic jumpsuits and strapped with guitars. The guitar-heavy lineup gave the second half of the show a more punk-rock sound, and the song selection until the end was pretty amazing: “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Secret Agent Man,” “Jocko Homo,” “Gates of Steel,” and their jittery rendition of the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” one of the greatest covers ever.

The encore included “Freedom of Choice” and “Beautiful World,” performed by Booji Boy, a weird falsetto-singing manchild creation whose significance is probably only fully understood by true De-volutionaries.

 

An Old Hand

Doc Watson

The Egg, Aug. 1

Doc Watson, the seven-time Grammy winning traditional country musician from North Carolina, is among America’s most influential guitarists. Discovered playing a Les Paul in 1960 by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, Doc (Arthel, his given name, was considered too weird for the stage, so “Doc,” a reference to Sherlock Holmes’ physician sidekick, was suggested) was persuaded by Rinzler to shed his electric ax for an acoustic so his music could appeal to the burgeoning folk revival. Watson’s scintillating flatpicking style, which encompassed note-for-note versions of fiddle tunes and flashy instrumental song breaks derived from western swing, soon led to the emergence of the guitar as a bluegrass lead instrument after Clarence White learned it and featured it in the Kentucky Colonels. Watson’s talents didn’t end with flatpicking, either—he was also an accomplished fingerpicker, banjoist, and harmonica player with a rich baritone voice.

Now 87, he came to the Egg Sunday night with his longtime electric bassist T. Michael Coleman, grandson Richard Watson on guitar, and ace banjo picker and guitarist David Holt, to perform his signature tunes. You can’t expect any octogenarian to play as he did in his prime, but by and large, Watson still packed lightning in his fingers.

With Holt and Coleman in tow, Watson, wearing gray slacks and a brown-and-gray- patterned shirt, opened with Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Downtown.” Holt’s clawhammer banjo work was fluid and flawless, and Doc held his own on flatpicked guitar. Next he played “Shady Grove” a song with which he used to woo his future bride, Rosalee Carlton. Holt was even better here, climbing the neck for some deft drop-thumb runs.

Watson learned hoedown tunes after he joined a string band that lacked a fiddler and he had to carry the lead on guitar. The trio breezed through one such breakdown, “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” Another highlight was “Deep River Blues,” which Watson took from a 1930s Delmore Brothers song and arranged in Merle Travis’ fingerpicking style.

For the second set, Watson began playing fingerstyle on Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” In a painful moment, his picking collapsed during the next tune, Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” but he rallied with Merle Travis’ “I Am a Pilgrim.” Rejoined by Coleman and now grandson Richard, a garage-band-level guitarist who played up-the-neck blues riffs better suited to classic rock than the genre at hand, Doc yodeled with panache on Jimmie Rodgers’ version of the old blues number “Frankie and Johnny.” With Holt back onstage, they finished with a swaggering rendition of John Hurt’s “Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied.”

Watson and company offered no encore, but legends of his stature don’t need to.

—Glenn Weiser

 

What’s She Building?

tUnE-yArDs

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., July 30

It’s the test of any musician to replicate the effect of a successful recording live onstage, but lo-fi artists have it especially tough, given that so much of their style and identity is tied to the sound of haphazard home-recording technology. Such is the case with tUnE-yArDs, the feral bedroom-pop project of Merril Garbus, which exploded out of obscurity last year on the merits of Bird-Brains, a self- produced blend of glitchy beats, fuzzy ukulele, found sounds, and Garbus’ powerful vocal work. Beyond excellent songcraft, the record was endearing in part because of the transparency of its construction. At times, you hear Garbus click on her loop pedal, fidget with a microphone, or adjust a level on her gear. But it wasn’t the cuteness of imprecision that she was after. Instead, the effect was raw and uninhibited, like a child banging on pots and pans because that’s all that was lying around.

Wide-eyed and face-painted, Garbus, a Smith alumnus who hatched tUnE-yArDs at a coffee-shop open mic in Northampton, Mass., quickly proved that her music is built for performance, and watching her build it was one of the show’s great treats. With help from Nate Brenner on bass, Garbus layered each track on a loop console using only a floor tom, snare drum, ukulele and voice, occasionally incorporating a rim shot or the clink of drum stick on mic stand. The beats could be primal and dance-ready, at times evoking M.I.A. with all her dancehall militancy, at others Micachu, the cheeky, choppy Brit. But, in spite of her lo-fi origins, there was nothing haphazard about her command of her gear. Unlike most who produce a ukulele for the sake of novelty, Garbus played hers with seriousness and dexterity, but always in service to her deep earthy vocals. “Hatari,” one of the only songs she played from her debut, was a prime example. It opened with a register-jumping African ululation, which Garbus doubled and tripled to spooky choral effect before pounding out a junkyard groove underneath. The subsequent breakdown and closing exhortation that “there is a natural sound that wild things make when they’re bound” seemed to cut right to the core of her message.

Drawing on fist-pumping reggae tropes of survival, perseverance and liberation, Garbus seemed to be (perhaps unconsciously) rejecting the clean, cute, domestic passivity that most female performers in the indie/art pop world have assumed lately. It was a tack shared by opener Shira E, whose crowd-participatory guitar tunes earned her a surprisingly frenzied response from the audience.

—Josh Potter


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