Legendary Punk Nerds Rocked Oakland w/ Fred Armisen
Devo Diaries at Burger Boogaloo
By Jordan Latham
It was a warm, apocalyptically dark pink night when I showed up at Mosswood Park Saturday, the “Mad Max” skies courtesy of another fire season off to a hellacious start. The Burger Boogaloo has become an annual pilgrimage of mine since The Mummies made the bill and with Devo headlining, I wasn’t about to miss the show for some pesky ash and smoke.
The Mummies took the stage with their tireless high energy, but the crowd’s vibe was pretty calm early in the evening. The deep orange light from the sky set a perfect backdrop for the gyrating Mummies, as a breeze blows through the packed congregation of concert-goers draped in vintage Planet of the Apes costumes, wraps and sunglasses. Being as obsessive as I am about Halloween and good music, my pleasure center was firing on all cylinders.
Burger Boogaloo has grown in size and notoriety with each passing event. Last year’s turnout for Iggy Pop was impressive, but paled in comparison to Saturday’s crowd, It which spanned so far back from the main stage that I couldn’t see the end to the multitude of heads stacked with red “Devo” hats. Faithful fans baked in the hot sun all day for what was about to come and the sense of anticipation was more palpable with each slowly passing moment through the painfully long set change.
I killed the time watching security frantically run back and forth as they tried to catch grown men in cutoff shorts and dirty sneakers jumping in over the fence. Several guys successfully broke in as they descended all at once, leaving staff powerless to stop them. It was Devo or bust.
John Waters took the stage for the headliner introduction in characteristic all-white refined-trashy attire. He joked about doing blow in a titty bar with the band, claiming he was under Devo’s spell. He announced that Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Portlandia would be subbing on the drums and went on to lament the state of our country’s politics, cutting no corners while espousing his strong feelings about the Donald, who he referred to as a “feckless prick” and “an orange anus.” In a gut punch to the First Lady, Waters proclaimed that no drag queen would ever impersonate her shit fashion sense.
He recounted the times promoters would unplug Devo in an effort to censor them. “But not tonight,” Waters said. “Because we’re a cult, glad to be brainwashed. Tonight is Jonestown with a happy ending.”
And with that, the masters of “de-evolution” made their way out to perform together “for the first time in four years”, fittingly just as the sun began to set. Bright orange (a.k.a. “the new yellow”) jumpsuits and flashing red back lights framed the stage as the first few hypnotic beats sent people around me into spastic joy. “Here’s a song we’ve been working on” and they launched into “Whip It.”
The crowd was eclectic, outside the range of usual suspects for an Oakland punk show, drawing people who remember first hearing Devo in 1973. They were a “pissed off” group of guys ready to “challenge illegitimate authority” after they witnessed friends at the hands of police in the Kent State massacre. They were unlike anything else at the time, and they remain iconic. Seeing Devo live gave me everything I never knew I needed. After nearly 50 years of performing, they still exude excitement and power as they break into every hit, just as crisp live as their studio recordings. And Fred Armisen pulled it off on the drums.
Everyone bundled up in hoodies and beanies as the winds picked up and the smoke machine struggled not to be obsolete in the weather. But even the concert goers who were annoyingly drunk during previous performances were riveted, eyes glued to the stage.
There are almost no words to describe the feeling of being in a crowd of people so totally satisfied in the moment, so mesmerized by the music. The price of admission didn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. I never imagined I would have the chance to see them play and I was overwhelmed with gratitude to be just a small part of that history. From folks who paid hundreds of dollars for tickets to the deadbeats who hopped the fence to get in, we were stoked to be there now. We were a crowd ranging from tech yuppies to street kids, and mostly places in between. In a very divisive time, in a climate where people were recently sleeping in this park where we’re enjoying live music, there is very little cohesion in our Bay Area community.
But Saturday served to remind us all that “We Are Devo.”