Show Review: Violent Femmes at the Fillmore, 05/11/2016

by Becka Robbins on May 25, 2016

Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes

Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes (all photos by Daniel Martinez)

Nothing would have made the Violent Femmes a better band, because they were perfect. Gordon Gano sings like he’s a sick cat and has been drunk-crying all day; he has a kind of nasal whine, full of defeat, with a timbre as refined as cheap whiskey with generic Cherry Coke. I love his voice like I love cheap, shitty cocktails; it’s a love fueled by disillusionment and a longing for my more reckless and grimier youth when I didn’t care so much for creature comforts or sleep. The musical structure of their songs, like most punk pieces, is simple. But, like a lot of punk, their catchy songs about needing/wanting or frustration/disappointment are embittered perfection driven by a stripped, primitive skill and sound, and all of this sits squarely and perfectly with some of my perpetually adolescent tendencies.

Music fans can fall into an elitist mode about bands and how good they are. I have been surrounded by excellent, highly-technical musicians my entire life, who have discipline and attention to detail, and who make sacrifices for their craft, and I am incredibly excited to listen to them for hours; immediately after, I run home and plunk around on my own instruments for twenty minutes. Violent Femmes made great music that is totally democratic: you don’t have to be talented or rich, or even particularly disciplined, to make amazing songs that become a soundtrack for a counterculture. There are so many gems in their back catalogue befitting the disillusionment that Generation X is famous for, including “Special”, “American Music”, and a gloriously raw, angst-ridden cover of “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”, with all of the polite restraint of the original stripped off; where Boy George sounded like he was trying to rationalize with his lover, Gano is scornfully accusing, and reveling in the drama. “Add It Up” ought to be their most famous, with a classic countdown that every Doc-wearing punk in the 90s would scream along to in their cars. The Violent Femmes had come here to show us that anyone can make a great teenage soundtrack, even if you sound like a dying cat and have all the poise and glamor of a tripping walrus.

Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes

Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes

My expectations for the Violent Femmes show at the were along the lines of your basic reunion tour, where a band gets back together gets together for the sake of commercial nostalgia, sells out shows, rakes it in, and gives fans a show of old material, kind of like a recent Pixies performance I was at. It’s obvious when you see them that the Pixies aren’t thrilled about being on stage together, but they do deliver a tight show, but without apparent joy. And, at the start of the show, when the Violent Femmes opened with “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off”, my expectations were met, exactly — they were lackluster and stiff, delivering what I’d come to expect from this kind of reunion show, but I love these shows anyway, because an entire crowd of old people yelling along with a rock band feels like special a unified reverence. People are excited! It feels like a preview to the future, where Gen-Xers in old age homes with memory failure would have singalongs to the songs of their youth to keep them engaged. It was hokey and overly-rehearsed, but it’s what a lot of us wanted, and we drank it up like the finest of whiskeys.

But then! The band seemed to turn on once they dove into their new material starting with “Good For/At Nothing” and “Love Love Love Love Love”. When they served up songs that were less beloved by us, and fresher for them, they came alive. They gave us energy and a level of musicianship that their old material hadn’t ever displayed – in the intervening decades, these motherfuckers have leveled up from the most basic stripped down punk sound to being… musicians? This is not the same band I saw in 1990, nor does it feel like a band whose members famously sued one another over royalties. They were vibrant and lively, playing a solid mix of their old material with their new, and with musical aptitude not evident in their original songs, far exceeding my expectations. The stripped-down, folk-punk simplicity of their original sound was replaced by a full and more robust sound; in the intervening decades, they’ve either learned to play well, or they’ve been holding out on us all these years.

Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes

Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes

Perhaps Gano, in particular — whose parents are musicians and who surely must have held guitars at a young age — was a ringer, holding back for the sake of style. I don’t at all remember him being this good on guitar, banjo, and fiddle. His vocal skills have picked up, if not with subtlety, then with a richness that comes and goes, depending on the song. Bassist Brian Ritchie was demonstrating a more sophisticated ease across different basses, and kicking out a slick xylophone solo on “Gone Daddy Gone”. The middle section of their show was dedicated to the memory of their friend and mentor Steve McKay, and was a deliciously playful jam through covers, old, and new material.

As perfect as they were before, how refreshing is it to see an old favorite band infused with a new energy and creative energy, playing for the excitement and creative discovery? The delightful surprise of this far exceeds any stale re-enactment of one’s youth.

Setlist:

  1. Blister in the Sun
  2. Kiss Off
  3. Good For/At Nothing
  4. Love Love Love Love Love
  5. Please Do Not Go
  6. Country Death Song
  7. I Could Do Anything/ Sir Bongo
  8. Not Be Found
  9. Waiting for the Bus
  10. Prove My Love
  11. Promise
  12. Breakin’ Up
  13. Jesus Walking on the Water
  14. Issues
  15. Old Mother Reagan
  16. Freak Magnet
  17. Color Me Once
  18. If We Were Lovers
  19. Black Girls
  20. Gone Daddy Gone
  21. Add it Up

Encore:

  1. Memory
  2. American Music

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