It's unlikely that when the members of Devo formed their arty conceptual band at Kent State University in the early '70s, they envisioned themselves as a Northeast Ohio tourist attraction. But that's what they've in essence become, as the raison d'tre for the annual DEVOtional, a fan gathering begun in Akron in 2000. This year's event, dubbed Snake Thru the Chaos, at the Beachland Ballroom on Saturday, August 30, is the eighth edition (It skipped 2004, when Devo toured for the first time in years and fans opted to see the real thing).
Alex Brunelle, who's organized the event since 2005, describes it as a "family reunion." The 22-year-old, who started listening to his dad's Devo tapes as a preschooler, says, "We have a core group and we all kind of need our fix. This is something we all talk about - how, after the fact, we go through DEVOtional withdrawal. For two and a half days, that's all that's going on for us. George Bush isn't a person, the world doesn't hate us, the economy isn't a piece of shit. It's one thing we're passionate about, and it makes the world better for us."
DEVOtional '08 will feature the usual mix of vendors, performers including house band the Spudboys, acoustic Devo interpretations by Malcolm Tent and bluegrass versions by the mutant Mountain Boys. There's also a rare film - a never-before-seen show from 1977 that Brunelle describes as "probably the highest-quality archival footage I've seen of the band from that era." But Brunelle says this year's event should be more easygoing since, for the first time, there will be no band-member appearances.
"Because there isn't going to be a member of the band there and not as rigid a schedule, it's going to be a bit more laid-back, people hanging out and chatting rather than being focused on the thing going on at the time, which is good because these things are incredibly hectic," says Brunelle. To make up for its in-person absence, the band, which is playing a show in California that night, will do a live video chat with DEVOtional attendees. "I think it'll be the whole band, but at least [band founders] Mark [Mothersbaugh] and Jerry [Casale]," says Brunelle. "That will be new for us because we've had trouble getting Mark to the event, so it'll be our first chance to have Mark answer questions. Mark will have his Mac laptop backstage; we'll have a Mac laptop onstage here, hooked up to a video system so people can see it. There will probably be a moderator sitting next to a laptop. It'll be live interaction with the band. We looked for other ways to draw people to the event because nobody from the band was going to be there. We're also going to be premiering new Devo songs they're working on for their new album."
The weekend kicks off Friday, August 29, with a double-barreled art show at Tremont's Asterisk Gallery. Art and Devo go together naturally since the band is as much about its visuals - its costumes, its album art, its videos - as its music. Upstairs, the gallery will feature the Devo-inspired work of Bay area artist and longtime friend KRK Ryden; downstairs, there'll be a one-night-only show called Jocko Dome-O, for which artists were given one of Devo's signature energy domes and asked to let their imaginations run wild. (The domes will be for sale to help pay for the legal expenses of Rachel Bevilacqua of the satirical Church of the Subgenius, who lost her son in a custody battle when a conservative judge disapproved of Subgenius' activities).
"I'm trying to make it as Devo as I can," says Ryden of his show. "There's a spirit of Devo that's hard to capture, but there's also a technique and style of Devo, that cool industrial look that also looked like '50s advertising art. Also, there's the art of Mark Mothersbaugh - that postcard art he does - and since I met him 25 years ago, that's rubbed off on me." Ryden's got his creative fingers all over this year's event. He did the poster artwork, and he's finished an energy dome for the Jocko Dome-O show and hopes to get another done.
"The one I finished is covered with red fur - red fur on the red hat. It took a lot longer than I thought because I had to trim the whole thing with scissors, like a really close haircut. If it was too long, it looked like a furry football helmet or a furry Russian hat. Then you couldn't tell it had anything to do with Devo because you couldn't tell the shape of the hat."