The first time I finally saw the Violent Femmes perform, which was at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2013, the band played its debut full-length album in its entirety. Given that “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up” were college-listening staples for me, I figured I would at least check a box and enjoy the show.
Little did I know the Violent Femmes would be so damn good as a live band, using that Coachella appearance to spring into annual summer touring, which this year included another stop at The Anthem recently.
Appearing on a double bill with Ben Folds, the Violent Femmes got loose with good vibes and strong chemistry, clearly having a damn good time and letting the music flow through them and into a very excited audience.
Guitarist Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie founded the Violent Femmes in Milwaukee back in 1980, and the two were clearly onto something good, considering how enduring their debut record proved to be. The quartet, which now also includes saxophonist Blaise Garza and drummer John Sparrow, favored that debut by playing five songs from it over the course of a 19-song set at The Anthem on July 30. Clearly, Gordon and Brian had some conflicts over the years, but all was well in DC as the four men truly came together to delight the nearly full concert hall.
Early in the show, drummer John caught our intention with his inventiveness. The Violent Femmes played “Memory” from We Can Do Anything, the band’s 2016 ninth record, and John played a snare with drum brushes while a mischievous smile crept across his face. The Violent Femmes followed that tune with “Breakin’ Up” from New Times, their 1994 sixth album, and John sat on a box, which he beat in time to the song. The man absolutely was in the zone, lost in the music, as he slapped out the foreboding rhythm of the song.
Those selections served to remind the crowd of the unique character and timber of Gordon Gano’s voice, and they were good vehicles for his quirky range. Whatever Gordon sang, he launched that voice firmly against authority — whatever authority that might tell him that he could not do what he wanted to do — and so it was well warmed for “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off,” two defiant tunes from that iconic debut album. The audience immediately went crazy for those early numbers, and we were well on our way to a very satisfying evening of intriguing rock.
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In the middle of the set, the Violent Femmes performed “Country Death Song,” hailing from their 1984 sophomore album, a number Gordon said the band used to play all of the time but now rarely do. In this song and others, Brian Ritchie wielded the bass like an extension of his body, beaming proudly as he either strummed stoically or thrummed frenetically. Perhaps of everyone, Brian seemed most proud of the Femmes catalog, relishing every beat he played.
Saxophonist Blaise impressed all evening but never more so than when he turned to his eight-foot tall contrabass saxophone, which humorously dominated the stage but largely went untouched during the first part of the set. Play it he did, particularly during “Add It Up” to close the show. Blaise gave every song a jazzy boost, and he particularly augmented the controlled chaos of the chorus to “Add It Up,” energizing the high-spirited punk song with the contrabass sax.
The Violent Femmes remain on tour through Sept. 14, when they close near home in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Catch them for a memorable and endlessly creative show. The Femmes truly capture the energy and pathos of their early material while adding ingenuous layers with relatively new selections. They are surely a band to see live.
Here are some pictures of the Violent Femmes performing at The Anthem on July 30, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Mickey McCarter.