Desert Daze is, predominantly, a psych fest — it’s in the name, location, and in their primary booking. But every year, the festival returns — now situated on Lake Perris, in California — to bend the meaning of that word or genre, including music on a broad spectrum from metal to noise to electronic, suggesting there’s transcendence possible across different forms of music. So, on one hand, the presence of Devo at the festival’s 2019 installment was a unique tangent, but on another it fit right in with their general approach.
The second day of this year’s Desert Daze actually had a nice little assortment of bands on an art rock/post-punk wavelength. Earlier in the afternoon, Parquet Courts played a scorching set while the sun was still high and the desert heat was in full force; Andrew Savage sported one of Devo’s signature energy dome hats, as did many fans in the audience. Later at night, the corroded Swedish band Viagra Boys performed a guttural, skronking set across the festival grounds, at the edge of the beach.
In between, there was Devo, forefathers of a whole lot of post-punk and new wave. When their addition to Desert Daze was first announced, the set was billed as the beginning of a farewell tour. Devo plays intermittently, but doesn’t tour frequently — it appeared they’d finally be wrapping it up. Later that week, however, Jerry Casale told Rolling Stone there were no plans for such a tour. Maybe Desert Daze would be the last chance to see Devo before a new phase, maybe it’d be our last chance, period. Either way, it continued Desert Daze’s 2019 penchant for atypical headline acts, and the collective, unified excitement to see such an idiosyncratic, classic band was palpable in the day and a half leading up to Devo’s set.
That excitement mostly didn’t wane in the immediate build-up to Devo’s set, even if the crowd’s patience appeared tested by the 25 minute mockumentary that screened before Devo took the stage. It was a bemusing concept, featuring Devo linking up with some cheesy big city marketing types to help relaunch the band and remind everyone that they were correct about the theory of Devolution all those decades ago. There were a lot of bits about new masks. It went on for a long time, to the point where you could almost wonder if Devo was actually never going to take the stage physically and the whole appearance would be one big performance art move.
Eventually they did appear, launching right into “Don’t Shoot (I’m A Man),” a latter-day cut from their 2010 album Something For Everybody. The set did start off a little slow, with newer material or lesser-adored singles from back in the day. But, a couple songs in, the band donned those energy dome hats and kicked into “Girl U Want” and “Whip It,” instantly winning the crowd over. (“Here’s a little ditty we’ve been working on,” they sardonically introduced “Whip It.”)
What proceeded was a set that featured most of Devo’s signature songs, with some conceptual heft surrounding them. At a set break following “Whip It,” the band retreated for a costume change while a clip about the universe played on the stage’s screen. Keeping with their arch tone, it was a video in a set celebrating decades of this band’s existence that went about contextualizing them as an “insignificant blemish with a lifespan too short to measure,” cosmically speaking.
Devo were never crowd-pleasers, but what followed would be a pretty close approximation of fan service in their world. The second act of the set was heavy on major songs, particularly from Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and Freedom Of Choice, including “Uncontrollable Urge,” their rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Gates Of Steel,” and “Freedom Of Choice.” Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh’s voices were remarkably well-preserved. They could throw their vocals in all the same weird directions, and the music behind them had just the right amount of added onstage muscularity.
There were some ways in which you could quibble with the set. As far as their covers go, “Working In A Coal Mine” might’ve been a more enjoyable inclusion than “Secret Agent Man,” and considering how its prominence has only grown over the years, “Gut Feeling” was a glaring omission. (Like, seriously — make that mockumentary 10 minutes shorter and this wouldn’t be a conversation.) But at the end, they closed with a dramatic, extended “Beautiful World” — including Mothersbaugh reprising the long-running Devo character Booji Boy and delivering a monologue about watching the news and seeing the president’s arm get cut off by his helicopter — and it was such a fitting conclusion that it was hard to feel burnt by any other aspects of the set.
Whether in that mockumentary or quips between songs — including one about freedom of choice and Casale asking “How does it feel to be ruled by a tyrannical minority?” to which one audience member behind me yelled “Pretty good!” — Devo were still making a point. Whether this turns out to be part of a farewell run or not, there is a finality to Devo’s project from all those years ago, but an enduring relevance to their music regardless of influence. At another bleak stretch of modern American society, a group of Ohio weirdoes were making music about the species destroying themselves. These songs, sung in a place as naturally beautiful as Lake Perris, still have a lot of bite to them in another century. “How many people here think Devolution is real?” Casale asked the audience, to roaring cheers. He responded dryly: “You got that right.”