While many up and coming groups had their day in Austin today, my objective was to check out some of the established, pioneering bands headlining around town. With that, I queued up with what seemed like the rest of 6th street to see the legendary Sonics play Emo’s at 8 p.m., reuniting for one of the few times since the band broke up in the late 60’s (last year kicked off an official comeback with a Halloween night show in Seattle and some dates in Europe.)
Playing their raucous garage rock – a style which went on to influence a legion of artists – the Tacoma, Washington group performed their hits “Strychnine” and “Psycho” along with their well-known covers of “Louie Louie” and “Money,” saxophonist Rob Lind at intervals yucking it up with the crowd. Years from their heyday, Jerry Roslie’s screeching wail was still spot on, and Larry Parypa’s masterful guitar electrified the set. The group was a tight unit, with the capable additions of Don Wilhelm on bass and Ricky Lynn Johnson on drums. Closing with “The Witch,” the Sonics left their Austin fans with a renewed sense of rock-n-roll history.
I quickly shot over to the Austin Music Hall to catch the Datarock, Tricky and Devo showcase. With their trademark red tracksuits, Datarock ambled on stage and immediately launched into the set, with synchronized stage antics that clearly nod to Devo. The group danced and jumped around with a level of energy that could not be matched by the crowd, still filing in and weary after a day of walking in the Texas sun. The crowd amped up a little with the Talking Heads-esque catchy pop of “Fa-Fa-Fa,” and shortly Datarock cleared the stage.
I was all the more impressed by Tricky’s set, who readied himself for the show by smoking a joint with his back to the crowd during the dark and brooding opening number. He turned to the crowd and stripped out of his shirt, bare chested in suspenders the rest of the show. While his albums Maxinquaye, Pre-Millenium Tension and Angels with Dirty Faces all have their esteemed place in trip-hop history, I clearly underestimated the timeliness and versatility of the singer and his band, who, minus the vocals of Martina Topley-Bird, still delivered a suspenseful, dramatic show. His raspy, gravelly voice still cut with “Christiansands” and the industrial warehouse feel of “Black Steel” was just as intense.
It was a segue stretch from the languidly moving Tricky, but soon Devo appeared in their matching laborer’s uniforms and manned their instruments. Carrying on the “de-evolution” theory of the band, a stage-wide video screen projected pop culture images against the band’s robotic, mechanical movements. The lights went down and the band reappeared as iconic Devo, in red planter hats and gray jumpsuits; they performed “Whip It.” As the band pulled their back history of hits, every song from “Uncontrollable Urge” to “Satisfaction” made an appearance, to the delight of the packed venue. Soon red Devo hats were being tossed into the crowd.
Much was made of Devo’s appearance at South by Southwest this year. There were press conferences and panel discussions and keynote speeches. Founder Mark Mothersbaugh has gone on to make a name for himself outside the group as a highly attuned music theorist and composer, but the idea of group mentality and conformity that Devo satirizes still has quite a hold on public attention. For a group that Rolling Stone once called “fascist,” it will be interesting to see how this comeback plays out.