Violent Femmes, the legendary folk punk group out of Milwaukee, WI, returned to Chicago’s Riviera Theatre. The band is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of its self-titled debut album Violent Femmes. Lending support was Elizabeth Moen, originally from Iowa, now of Chicago.
Violent Femmes, founded in Milwaukee WI in 1981, originally consisted of Gordon Gano on lead vocals and guitar, Brian Ritchie on bass, and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. Gano and Ritchie remain part of the present line-up, with multi-instrumentalist Blais Garza and drummer John Sparrow joining in 2004 and 2005 respectively.
As mentioned above, this concert tour celebrates the 40th Anniversary of the band’s self-titled debut, Violent Femmes. The group kicked off its set with what is arguably its most famous and likely most popular tune, “Blister in the Sun.” It seems not often that a band will play its biggest tune right out of the chute. But when those iconic first notes hit, the crowd was immediately thrilled and that feeling appeared to never let up. Gano’s unique voice is as strong as ever.
Violent Femmes is immensely suited to sing-alongs by the audience. Sure, audience members singing along is pretty much standard operating procedure at many concerts. However, at a Violent Femmes show, the art is a bit elevated. Seemingly every word is sung in great unison by, often sold out crowds. At one point Brian Ritchie, if I recall correctly, raised an arm in the same manner as association football aka soccer, players do, to urge fans on. It might not technically fall under the call-and-response definition but was pretty cool to witness.
Speaking of Brian Ritchie, he was a charismatic presence throughout the show. Moving to the edge of the stage several times, he delighted those in close proximity. If there was a leader on stage among the band members, it was clearly Ritchie.
Zooming through the track listing, the energy level from band and audience never waned. The crowd did understandably appear to skew older, many likely discovering the debut album when it actually debuted, or soon thereafter. It was refreshing, however, to see younger fans scattered throughout, a family affair for some. Highlights included the aforementioned “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” “I Held Her In My Arms,” and “I’m Nothing.”
All of the band members are adept at playing multiple instruments, as is the case with many groups. Gordon Gano, for example, plays the violin along with the guitar. However, some of the instruments are, to say the least, non-traditional. Ritchie plays not only bass, but a conch shell as well, and a box he slaps as he sits upon it. I don’t know of any other punk bands in which a conch shell is used. (It also made me regret not taking home one of the beautiful conch shells I saw during my time spent in Belize years back.)
But eliciting cool sounds from unusual sources is just one of the things that makes Violent Femmes music unique.
John Sparrow, plays an instrument more unusual even than a conch shell. As in a Weber Grill in the role of one of his drums. Yes, that American barbecue grilling classic. The first sight of it is always amusing, but it’s played it to great effect.
Sparrow plays roughly along the same onstage line, as Gano and Ritchie. With the exception of briefly trading box slapping duties with Ritchie, he performs standing, slightly hunched over a simple set-up. Sparrow was one of the most animated of the performers on stage.
Also, because he was not obscured by a combination of factors: distance from the photo pit, blocked by an expansive kit and/or a high stage, and poor lighting in the back area, it was refreshing to be able to actually grab some pretty decent drummer photos. His deft playing was fun to witness as well, especially when he was let loose for an occasional solo. On stage, Ritchie described Sparrow as a “Grill Master.” Fitting. Hey Weber Grill, give this guy a sponsorship if he does not have one already.
When attending a Violent Femmes show, it is hard to not immediately notice another thing set toward the rear of the stage. A giant saxophone, known as a Contrabass Saxophone.
Played by Blais Garza, the instrument made its first appearance with the group in 2004 and has been used on subsequent Violent Femmes recordings.
The manner in which Garza plays the instrument, towering high above him, leaves no doubt he has complete command of it, evoking lovely and compelling sounds.
At first glance, those unfamiliar with Violent Femmes’ music and shows might dismiss instruments such as conch shells, Weber Grills, and supersized saxophones, as gimmicky. And yes, there are many gimmicks to be found in punk music. Way too many for me personally. Schtick Punk is not really my jam. Violent Femmes are not that at all.
However quirky Violent Femmes is, the band is not given to cheap and easy artifices. This is a band, decades on, with some personnel changes, which remains, at its core, a band of great musicians. They put on a clinic of how to stage a show the attendees will long remember and leave, looking forward to the next time Violent Femmes hit their towns.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Violent Femmes is also backed by a formidable horns section, integral to the show and the music. Add it up (hey, I had to do this at least once) and the show was a blast. All of the band members seemed to be enjoying themselves if the wide smiles they sported during much of the performance were any indication. Gano, in particular, kept a never-fading look of joy on his face. The smiles of those in the crowd indicated the same. I might have grinned a bit as well.
Oh, and a quick note, one of songs off that debut album, “To The Kill,” references Chicago and a certain legendary mobster. The Riviera Theatre sits across the street, just yards away from the historic Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, where Al Capone held court in his booth, facing the entrances of course. Having myself enjoyed a night of jazz with friends in that very same booth, though no fan of the murderous Chicagoan, I found myself trying to contain slight chuckle.
Ending the show with “American Music” the second of a two-song encore, made for a rousing capper to a kicker of an evening.
Violent Femmes U.S.tour continues through November 18, 2023, closing out in Huntington Beach CA.
Opening up for Violent Femmes was Elizabeth Moen, from Vinton, Iowa, but now of Chicago.
Moen and her band provided the crowd a terrific start to the evening as her powerful vocals spread through the venue.
Elizabeth Moen’s most recent recordings include the album Wherever You Aren’t, from 2022; and For Arthur in 2023. That latter is an album of covers of Arthur Russell‘s music. Moen has pledged all of the Bandcamp proceeds from “For Arthur,” to One Iowa, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ Iowans.
Moen will be headlining at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, on November 4, 2023.
Please check out more photos from the show. Thanks & Cheers!