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THE VIOLENT FEMMES @ MASONIC TEMPLE (concert review by Grace H. and Luisa H.)

the Violent Femmes at Masonic Temple

Last summer I was on a bit of a 90’s nostalgia kick. Even though I’d heard the name before, my introduction to the Violent Femmes’ music was the 1994 film Reality Bites, where a sexually frustrated Ethan Hawke plays an angsty rendition of ‘Add It Up’ to Winona Ryder (my absolute fav). Hawke’s band played in a crowded bar with walls covered in miscellaneous posters and stickers, and a pit full of rowdy 20-somethings. It was exactly the type of environment that most fans at this show saw their first Femmes concert in. 

The past 40 years took the Violent Femmes from packed college bars to historic venues like Detroit’s Masonic Temple. We made our way through the venue, snapping pictures of the architecture, and talking to fans both old and new. Suddenly bassist Brian Richey delivered  “PSA” over the loudspeakers  announcing the setlist for the night.

bass player Brian Ritchie plays solo in ‘never tell’

The band would play their second album, Hallowed Ground, cover to cover, as well as their 1983 self-titled debut album. Ritchie even mentioned the possibility of an encore. It was clear that this was a show for the fans. Not only did the Violent Femmes keep their sense of humor, but when the band took the stage they had the same twangy folk-punk sound as they always have. 

Vocalist and lead guitarist Gordon Gano picked up a banjo, and the band opened with ‘Country Death Song’. (A perfect night to wear my cowboy vest). The trend of band members picking up new and different instruments continued throughout the entire show, as Gano brought out the fiddle for “Jesus Walking on the Water” in true country Baptist fashion. Brian Ritchie switched between a couple bass guitars, including a wacky blue acoustic that he could play like an upright bass, and percussionist John Sparrow drummed on a barbecue grill! . 

The beginning Bible quote of ‘Hallowed Ground’ sent the audience into a resounding shout and commotion. 

“The prophet is a fool/ the spiritual man is mad/ for the multitude of thy iniquity/ and the great hatred…” 

Sparrow’s drumming was expressive and raw, alternating between quiet but unrestful rumination during the verses to the utter anger of the chorus. Gano matched this energy, singing with powerful emotion. The vocalist’s background as a Baptist Preacher’s son heavily influenced the content of their songs, speaking on the conflict and angst that surrounds faith, and belief and unbelief, a topic that has come to resonate well with their audience. 

vocalist Gordon Gano and Drummer John Sparrow return for act 2

The fan favorite songs ‘Blister in the Sun’, ‘Kiss off’, and ‘Add It Up’ sounded absolutely mind blowing, especially with the BBQ drums. John Sparrow truly channeled the soul of Victor DeLorenzo (original drummer) with his playing. Gordon Gano’s lyrics drip with adolescent maladjustment that VF knows so well. But the most surreal part of the night was when the band played ‘Gone Daddy Gone’. Brian Ritchie made his way from the bass guitar to the xylophone, finishing the song with the elaborate, iconic and vitalizing solo. The Femmes followed the song with ‘Good Feeling’, which featured a beautiful, soulful violin solo by Gano. Of course, the band’s onstage antics energize the audience, making it even more fun to participate in the show. Ritchie’s conch shell playing in ‘Confessions’ added a layer of pleasant absurdity to the performance. 

The band came back to a buzzing crowd for their Encore, in which they dedicated the song ‘Memory’ to Steve Mackay, a close friend of the band who played saxophone for The Stooges. The song featured a tasteful sax solo by Blaise Garza on a huge contrabass saxophone. Finally the band closed the set with ‘American Music’, and I can’t think of a better ending to a great show!   

It was truly a treasure to see the Violent Femmes live, and experience why so many people resonate with their music. Whether you think that their music is a whiny portrayal of adolescent lust, or that it speaks to the ephemeral transition from teen to adult and the growing pains of such changes, you can see why  their lyrics and unique sound have woven themselves into the lives of people across decades.

the act 2 crowd at the barricade

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