It was a bit of shame that the Moore Theatre was sparsely populated Tuesday night during Austin four-piece The Octopus Project’s opening set for Devo, although that’s hardly a surprise. There’s likely very little crossover between fan bases for the indie electronica act and the cult new wave rockers, but if the diehard fans that flooded the venue just in time for Devo’s act had arrived a little earlier, they probably would have found something they liked.
After all, it’s not as if you can’t see some of Devo’s influence in The Octopus Project, whether in their shared penchant for idiosyncratic synthesized sounds, their love for kitsch or their high-energy shows. The Octopus Project first crossed paths with Devo at 2010’s Moogfest in Asheville, N.C., where it filled in as backing band after guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh injured his hand. Tuesday’s Seattle show was the first of eight shows in which it’ll open for Devo.
Despite the small audience, The Octopus Project dove in to its set with the same enthusiasm I’ve seen the band display with larger crowds. The nearly 45-minute set encapsulated its appeal — irrepressibly upbeat soundscapes fronted by hard-charging, instrument-switching energy. Toto Miranda’s furious drumming underpins the guitar and bass of Josh Lambert and Ryan Figg, while Yvonne Lambert gives the sound its edge with her array of samplers and keyboards.
The Octopus Project rarely features singing in its songs, but never falls into the same-sounding morass that some instrumental bands fail to overcome. Each song possesses a distinct identity, with those featuring Lambert’s expert manipulation of the theremin achieving a soaring sense of bliss. There may not be any humans singing, but when she takes control of the instrument, it’s as if a disembodied voice is rising above the din of crunching guitars, an otherworldly aria that’s as haunting as it is beautiful.
Devo took the stage soon after The Octopus Project finished, and delivered a nonstop blast of lively, noisy rock with tongue firmly planted in cheek. If the instruments constantly threatened to overwhelm the vocals in the mix, it hardly mattered; it was clear almost everyone knew all the lyrics anyway. The band’s unwavering commitment to showmanship is impressive, and its simultaneous embrace of social critique and outright silliness (matching shirts emblazoned with a grilled hot dog pattern were busted out for the encore — only one of many costume changes) is never uninteresting.
Songs from the band’s 2010 release, Something for Everybody, held their own against the parade of expected hits (“Whip It,” “Secret Agent Man,” “Freedom of Choice,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”), with Gerald Casale’s brief interludes and costume changes punctuating a breathlessly executed run of songs. Mark Mothersbaugh closed out the show as Booji Boy with one of Devo’s most blatantly satirical numbers, “Beautiful World.”
It might be easy to dismiss Devo as pure nostalgia bait, but the band remains fascinating on its own merits, with its proclivity for the aggressively strange and its commitment to embracing that identity with gusto. The band’s current tour with The Octopus Project runs through March 27, with a performance at Austin City Limits.