REVIEW: Violent Femmes at Summerfest


On Thursday night, the Violent Femmes received a hero’s welcome from their hometown crowd at Summerfest. The duo of frontman Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie were joined by percussionist John Sparrow, and within seconds of calmly walking onstage, the band kicked things off with “Blister In The Sun”, arguably their most recognizable songs. This came as a surprise to many in the crowd, but when you’re in the city that you got your start and big break from, it’s safe to assume that the crowd knows more than just their biggest hit. They followed with “Kiss Off”, another popular cut from their 1982 self-titled debut. Many consider the Violent Femmes’ debut to be their best work, and the Femmes themselves were conscious of that opinion; material from that album in particular was dispersed throughout the set.

Not surprisingly, songs from the Femmes’ first release got some of the biggest ovations from the crowd. “Prove My Love”, “Add It Up” and outtake-turned CD bonus track “Gimme The Car” all made appearances in the set, all to cheers. There was also material from the band’s latest album, “We Can Do Anything”, including the title track, which Gano informed the crowd was a Milwaukee-inspired polka. The crowd didn’t hesitate to bring their dancing shoes, as each song sent the bleachers into a frenzy.

All of the members of the Violent Femmes, including backing band the Horns of Dilemma, are incredibly talented on their own. Brian Ritchie remained front and center all night, with solos on both an acoustic and electric bass. In addition, Ritchie also put in work on the cajon, and xylophone on the evening’s finale, “Gone Daddy Gone”. Gano was more reserved, showcasing his skills on the guitar, electric banjo, and even the fiddle. Sparrow’s drumkit included a barbecue grill, so that alone should demonstrate his range. The Horns of Dilemma filled in the gaps, playing nothing short of a small music store with ease. All of the band members deserve their just due.

In terms of resonating with the crowd, however, there were some awkward moments. Ritchie walked on stage with a pair of yellow sunglasses that almost looked comically small. At times, he appeared distracted, which while it didn’t affect his performance, did make an impression on the fans. Gano introduced songs with the enthusiasm of a distant uncle showing off vacation photos. Thanks, but no thanks. There’s also a touch of irony in singing about borrowing the car from your dad to take out a girl that Gano wanted to (twangy guitar effect) when you’re very well past the point of asking to borrow anything from parents. Material from a dark era of the Femmes’ history, including “Color Me Once” from The Crow soundtrack (Google it, I’ll wait.) dragged out the night for a little bit, causing some to hit the exits.

For every awkward moment the Violent Femmes endured on Thursday, they made up with a spark of energy and excitement. Tracks like “American Music” got the crowd buzzing, and closer “Gone Daddy Gone” sent the crowd home with smiles of an earlier day, when the band earned money busking on the street. While the Femmes might not have the look of a group that writes lyrics about obsessive teenage anxiety anymore, they still have their sound, and an impressive live show. Seeing the Violent Femmes at Summerfest is about as Milwaukee as it gets, and if you haven’t done so already, it’s definitely a box to check off the next time  they swing through town.

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