The band’s tour kickoff at 20 Monroe Live in Grand Rapids on Friday trotted everything from “Blister in the Sun” to new gems like “Memory.” (Review, photos)
Standing front and center on the stage with a single, small amplifier, and a black Jazzmaster hanging from her shoulders, Brooklyn’s Ava Mendoza launched the evening at 20 Monroe Live on Friday in perfectly edgy fashion with Violent Femmes waiting in the wings.
While her most popular songs are textural and ambient soundscapes, the songs she performed in Grand Rapids were slow and bluesy, but with runs and musical tangents that drew from the minor-key and jagged sounds of melodic metal. Her music was too atonal and chromatic to sound like the blues, but also too blues to feel like it’s anything else.
Looming behind her was the back-lined setup for the Violent Femmes: the usual gear plus a marimba, gong, charcoal grill and the largest saxophone that most everyone in the crowd had ever seen, measuring over six feet tall.
Everyone waited anxiously with Mendoza’s haunting songs to see what the iconic headliners had in store for the first performance of their tour. Those fans included many young, local musicians, along with longtime fans who have grown up alongside Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes.
One in particular, Cam Frank (Andrew Starr and the Hobo Scene, Ape Not Kill Ape), has an intimate relationship to the band’s music.
“Last weekend, my girlfriend and I very impulsively bought tickets to the show. We’ve been pretty into the Violent Femmes since high school and had joint custody of this greatest hits CD of theirs,” said Frank, who’s inspired by the musicianship of the band.
“The bass player (Brian Ritchie) is an incredible a big influence on my bass playing. He has some very unique licks and has a nice folk/Americana touch to his playing.”
The Violent Femmes took the stage very modestly, in single file: original members Gordon Gano (guitar, vocals) and Brian Ritchie (bass guitar) along with new percussionist John Sparrow, and long-time touring band members Blaise Garza (tenor saxophone, contrabass saxophone) and Todd Joseph (trumpet, bass, guitar).
The set began with a mix of songs from their early albums and their latest studio release, 2016’s “We Can Do Anything,” including “Memory” and “Country Death Song.”
The Femmes exposed their darker side with “Country Death Song,” in which Gordon Gano’s lyrics tell the story of a man who pushes his daughter down a well because of poverty and desperation of failing to provide for his family. Surprisingly, the crowd erupted with voices calling out every word as feet shuffled and heads bobbed to the driving tune.
‘AN ORCHESTRATED AND SENSATIONAL JAM SESSION’
In contrast, “I Could Be Anything,” played later in the set, could be characterized as the “go get a soda” song of the set. Although the band played it with a lot of energy, the lyrics were too goofy, the song was too new, and the riffs were too generic to capture most of the audience.
Afterward Brian Ritchie announced that the band’s new live recording was released Friday and he asked someone to pass a copy of the record to him from across the venue, saying “I think this is the first time any of us [the band] have seen this.” Gano chimed in, “I’m tempted to go back and see what tracks are on it,” and expressing some anxiety over the producers selecting tracks that he did not want on the record.
As the set progressed, the band took the lead out and with songs “Jesus Walking on the Water,” “Love Love Love Love Love,” “Kiss Off,” and “Gone Daddy Gone,” exhibiting the Violent Femmes’ incredible ability to transform the recorded versions of their songs into a journey filled with solos and textural noise, turning the hard-hitting folk-rock songs into an orchestrated and sensational jam session. Along with the shift in playing styles, instrumentations shifted as well as Ritchie moved back and forth from bass to marimba and Gano from guitar to banjo. Garza also performed several songs with his massive contra saxophone, and Sparrow augmented his rhythms with a massive gong and the lid of a charcoal grill.
Ritchie commented on the city during the set, asking “Grand Rapids, are you actually called Beer City?” When the crowd roared back, “Yes,” he said, “Because we’re from Milwaukee, but we can share the name. We love to support younger, up and coming people.”
For the encore, the band rolled out its signature tune, “Blister in the Sun” and “American Music,” both of which brought endless cheers from the crowd as they shouted along in unison with Gano and danced along.
The night concluded with a rendition of “Add It Up,” where Gano and Ritchie both performed explosive solos, ending with all instruments creating a wall of noise.
Fans Liz and Mike Raymond described it all as a nostalgic experience: “It brings me back to a time of life. Growing up with them they were all party, all fun. All ‘live in the moment.’ It brings me back to a time of life.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Violent Femmes, Ava Mendoza at 20 Monroe Live
Photos by Anthony Norkus
Copyright 2017, Spins on Music LLC