Concert Review: Reflections on Devin Townsend, Transcendence, and Self-Giving

My brothers and I saw the Devin Townsend Project with Between the Buried and Me and Fallujah last Sunday, 9/25/2016, at the Mercury Ballroom in Louisville. Devin Townsend was a “bucket list” show for me, and the experience was paradigm-shifting, though I feel like I’m too old to really review concerts per se anymore. I’m going to let Thomas talk about the nuts and bolts of the concert, while I self-indulgently reflect on what the concert meant to me.

Devin’s latest major musical theme is Transcendence, which is the name of his latest album. The album artwork shows a conglomeration of religious symbols, presumably to communicate a transcendence of religious systems (a la Orphaned Land). It’s a theme he has touched on before, but he seems to be going full-steam ahead now. I admit that at face value, the idea doesn’t do much for me anymore. As a behavioral scientist who studies religious conflict and prejudice, I guess I’ve slipped into a bit of a malaise about what it actually means to ‘transcend’ individual religions. It’s a lofty and noble goal in theory, but in practice it seems to translate into rejecting individual religions, or looking down on individual religions, or becoming indifferent to individual religions, and all three of these seem to ignore realities on the ground about human behavior and the ways that they make meaning. The same problems exist when a person claims to be ‘color blind’ and transcend race, or transcend gender, or whatever. You can’t ‘transcend’ race because human brains naturally process visual and social stimuli, including race, and pretending to be unaware of this often results in more stereotyping, not less.

Back to the concert.

The concert lived up to my expectations. What shocked me was how engaging Devin was. It reminded me of a recent NPR interview I heard about the Beatles at Candlestick Park, because the guy being interviewed said that the magic of a Beatles live show was that every girl in the audience felt that John was looking straight at them. It’s obvious that Devin realizes what a concert means to people. It’s not like another kind of show, it’s literally a meeting between fantasy and reality. Until I saw the show, Devin was more of a concept than a person. I don’t know Devin personally, all I know is this music that I receive, and I use it to construct this abstract ‘Devin’ that I get to know, interact with, etc. and fantasy ‘Devin’ means something to me in my life. Well suddenly I’m in a room and real-life Devin is standing right over there. It’s like that film trope where a character doesn’t know whether they were having a dream or it was reality and suddenly he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a scarf that the Snowman gave him and he realizes that the Snowman was real.

Excuse me, I have something in my eye.

So while I’m seeing the show, the band is energetic, interactive, walking around on the stage, playing around with song intros and choreography, etc. and it’s really engaging and satisfies my adolescent desire to really connect with a musician who has really touched my life but doesn’t know me.

After the show, my brothers and I decide to hang around and see if we can meet the band and get some autographs. After some waiting, the band came around the corner one by one and signed stuff for us.

Finally, Devin came out on crutches. Things got real.

He told us he was hurt but he’s “got to put on a good show.” Even though I do therapy as part of my psychology training, I don’t claim to have some kind of supernatural telepathic abilities. Nevertheless, I could definitely sense some stuff going on as Devin smiled and posed for pictures. In fact I sensed it in all the band.

They were tired and in pain. The road is a cruel master.

I know what it looks like when a person feels burnout nipping at her heels. It’s kind of like a person who doesn’t know if she is Sisyphus or Atlas: I’m pushing my whole weight against this boulder – is it a meaningless, repetitive drudgery, or is my work benefiting humanity in some way? If I stop pushing, what will happen?

I know this is a roundabout way of saying this, but I think Devin and the rest of the band gave me a little glimmer of what ‘transcendence’ really looks like. It’s self-giving. I just got this overwhelming sense that by providing an audience (and me) with that reality-bending, flow-like experience, and by doing it in a cheerful, self-giving way, the band was modeling what the world actually needs right now. Devin was running around all over the stage with a strained ankle just so we could have a good time and get immersed in awesome music. Transcendence isn’t about feeling better than somebody else’s religion, it’s about temporarily transcending one’s own needs in service of a higher purpose.

This radically shifts my understanding of transcendence. In fact, it reveals that there are two kinds of transcending relevant to our discussion. What function does transcendence serve? Is the purpose to feel superior to that which is transcended? Or is the function to give of one’s self wholeheartedly (despite the individual beliefs and worldviews of those whom one serves)? The latter is way more charitable, fun, and cool. You should be fun and cool like Devin Townsend.

While we were getting autographs, one of my brothers pointed to my other brother and said “We’re brothers.” I indignantly responded with, “We’re all brothers!”

Devin responded, “I agree with that.” I didn’t feel the need to correct him.

Thanks, guys.


P.S., damn you Canadians for coming down to the U.S.A. and trying to show us how to be nice to each other, GET OUT

P.P.S., just kidding take us with you


  1. Excellent analysis! I saw the show in Columbus with my brother and best friend, and word for word, we described it just as you did. I’m a career professional with a family and a million other things to keep me occupied, but when I shook Townsend’s hand from the front row, it was as if for a moment I was a child meeting my hero, the person I had put down on my “if you could meet one person from history” assignment from the second grade. It was surreal, or some other abstract concept that is really hard to describe to my peers. Glad to see I’m not the only one.


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