This was the scene leading up to the performance of the one of a kind, Violent Femmes, at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina, this past Wednesday, the 28th. The show was the final installment of the museum’s Summer Concert Series, which has welcomed many other reputable performers to its stage, such as Iron and Wine, Neko Case, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect for the Femmes. For where else does a band who’s been making music since the early ’80’s without losing their unique sound belong other than a museum, a place where tokens of both history, art, and culture are preserved in their original glory to be speculated and admired? It was due to this setting, that the gathering fans may have experienced a surreal moment, in which the stage, with its colorful, geometric backdrop, appeared to be an exhibit, and the band, a live, raucous artifact promising to eventually appear.
Well before the performance of opening act, Angelica Garcia – a Virginia native whose love for both Americana and punk rock allow her to write powerful, howling tracks, like “The Devil Can Get In” and “Loretta Lynn” – dark clouds, lightening, and thunder were present in the distance. The weather, for some a means to call the concert to an end, would become an acting member of the evening’s performance, creating a sense of urgency, charging the musicians with a magnetism that would cause the crowd to forgo their seats and inhibitions. And so, drawn to the potential hazards of a thunderstorm and the promises it could make, an audience, some in rain coats, some in flip-flops, waited anxiously for the main act.
After a brief introduction, the Violent Femmes took the stage: original members, Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie, and joiners, John Sparrow, Blaise Garza, and Jeff Hamilton. Perhaps aiming to weed out the life-long fanatics from admirers, the Femmes opened with “Blister in the Sun”, and just as quickly as the band took up their instruments, the crowd released any unspoken worry of not hearing “the classics”. The set was dominated by selections from all eight of the band’s albums, not just their most recent, We Can Do Anything (2016), in which only a few tracks were played. The set-list choices demonstrate many qualities concert-attendees of the current tour will appreciate: no grudge-like refusal to play their hits, an infectious enthusiasm for performing live music, a best-for-last attitude for encores (“Add It Up”; “American Music”), and, most importantly, the belief that the best marketing is none at all.
Indeed, there was nothing promotional about the show. And from this aspect, you could sense the crowd felt trusted; entrusted to support a band they’ve been supporting for the past 30+ years. It was very clear to all, that the Violent Femmes were having just as good of a time playing as their audience was having listening. Each song, from “Prove My Love” to “Freak Magnet” brought that familiar, hot, ruthless sound, something any untrained ear would call “noise” with a defined snarl and any Femmes fan would call “noise” with a enamored grin.
Just six songs in, the band introduced a slight change in the set by announcing it was “storytelling time”, to which much applause and yelling broke out. Gordon fitted his electric banjo on and “Country Death Song”, followed by the new release, “I Could Be Anything”, enticed the crowd to clap along to each musical tale. Despite any worsening circumstances it could have invited, the Femmes played “It’s Gonna Rain” as small specs of cold water dappled the heads of the audience. Blaise Graza, also a member of The Horns of Dilemma, bellowed deeply into his contrabass saxophone – one of only twelve in the entire world – emitting a deep, low utterance, to which the band yelled, “Go lower, man, go lower!”
Nearing its end, the concert crowd-pleased with “Gimme the Car” and its grungy guitar solo, as well as hit some sentimental cords, with Gordon dedicating a piece of the show to late Steve McKay, who played with Iggy Pop and the Stooges and wrote the line for the saxophone in “I Held Her in My Arms”. The wacky favorite, “Jesus Walking on the Water”, with Gordon on the fiddle, had everyone stomping their feet on soggy grass or concrete, but the band led the high energy right into “Good Feeling”, which awakened wistfulness, swaying, and dreamy humming. The sharp transition was indicative of a great show; all of the emotional sensations and benefits of a roller coaster, without having to wait in line or hang, suspended, upside-down.