The Violent Femmes aren’t putting on nostalgia shows, so hold all your Rolling Stones comparisons. Sure, both bands embody the teenage angst of a generation, and both have a knack for sexually explicit lyrics (“Why can’t I get just one fuck?” meets “I can’t get no satisfaction”). But Mick Jagger is like 105 and Gordon Gano is only 42. Jagger has begun to look more like a raisin as he’s aged while Gano just looks a bit greyer and wider around the mid-section. And most importantly, the Stones sound like a trip down memory lane, whereas the Femmes sound as much like 2006 as they do 1983.
Nevertheless, I still expected some nostalgia-induced mayhem when the cult band stepped on stage at Chicago’s 800-person capacity club, the Cubby Bear. The 21-and-up show had quickly sold out, due in large part to the many fans who were in high school and college during the band’s peak—the decade between the release of 1983’s Violent Femmes and Ethan Hawke’s rendition of one of their songs in 1994’s Generation-X defining Reality Bites.
Although singer/guitarist Gano seems like the type of icon for whom crazed fans scream at the mere sight, there was still a lot of talking in the Wrigleyville sports bar when he began to play, accompanied by bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. But, when the band got going and started working through a set of classics with a few rarities tossed in, the audience rose to a frenzy, hoisting their Cinco de Mayo longneck Coronas and plastic Jose Cuervo margarita cups in the air and singing along. It turns out that the Femmes have a more lasting and meaningful claim to fame than their lead singer’s public persona. Why? Because, their songs still sound fresh.
Violent Femmes, the album that introduced the world to the Milwaukee, Wisconsin group’s catchy blend of punk, folk, and blues, didn’t achieve platinum status until almost a decade after its release. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of the reasons the Femmes’ music doesn’t sound dated is because it was never widely embraced and it’s never been exclusively associated with one period in time. Each year since its release, a slow stream of new fans has been drawn to Gano’s deeply sarcastic lyrics and the band’s raw, edgy sound.
But it’s hard to keep representing disaffected youth when you’ve spent a decade releasing best of, live, acoustic, and disappointing studio albums and two of your members look tired and unenthused.
Gano and Ritchie, wearing coordinating prison-orange, button-down shirts, just stood on the cramped stage and delivered. Ritchie, a large mountain man with long, flowing grey hair, was almost asleep. Gano, with his cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes, was not much of a showman at first but gradually fed off the audience’s building excitement. Standing centerstage to play his drums, DeLorenzo had five times the energy of his bandmates, looking like he wanted to jump off the stage to smother his fans in hugs.
Although the show lacked visual punch, the Femmes’ music was hardly tired. Gano has maintained his nasally, youthful voice; DeLorenzo’s minimalist, brush-dominated drumming was as hard-hitting as ever; and every time Ritchie took an acoustic bass solo the crowd’s jaws dropped in awe. Bands typically go into autopilot during a hit they wish they could escape, but the Femmes were enthusiastic in performing their classic material. Gano’s charisma actually tripled during “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off”, and lulled during songs, such as “Girl Trouble”, that he said they do about once every four years.
Between songs the Femmes discussed what to play next, but otherwise there was little banter. “I have memorized a poem about relations between Mexico and the United States,” Gano paused to say after a well-received rendition of “Rejoice and Be Happy” from 2000’s Freak Magnet. “In the Mexican zoo they have ordinary American cows.”
Other than quoting Beat poet Gregory Corso, their talk was limited to “thank you"s and the introduction of guest musicians. Chicago harmonica player Matthew Skoller joined the band for one of the night’s best performances—a laidback, deeply bluesy version of “Waiting for the Bus”. With the addition of a seven-piece horn section, “Confessions” built to a roaring, improvised, extended climax and then, in a bizarre twist, floated away on Ritchie’s recorder.
The Violent Femmes have the type of classic catalogue that somehow gets lost at the back of your CD case and inexplicably left off your iPod. But when you randomly pull out and put on a CD or attend one of their shows, not only are you reminded of why you loved this band in the first place, you also discover new musical and lyrical subtleties in their work That, and the secret to aging gracefully.