Gen Xers, Square-Dancing Dudes, and All
By Brittany MenjivarNovember 21, 2023
Like many other concertgoers, I was reeled in by the promise of hearing the band’s biggest hits. This wasn’t just any old Violent Femmes show. It was the 40th anniversary celebration of their self-titled first album—the one that gave us classics like “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone.” The band had announced that they’d be performing the record front-to-back, so I was prepared to bob my head to some cherished chart-toppers.
I was less prepared to watch music be made with conch shells and kettle grills. Yet, striding into the Novo the evening of the Femmes’ L.A. concert, I was delighted to see what looked less like a conventional stage setup than a collection of odd objects and rare musical instruments. Throughout the course of the night—which began with what bassist Brian Ritchie referred to as “the 37 minutes that changed the world, or, at least, our world,” before segueing into an assortment of later singles and deep cuts—the band deployed every gizmo and gadget onstage. Percussionist John Sparrow made ample use of “the barbecue.” At one point, four different horns played in unison.
When Violent Femmes debuted on the alternative rock circuit in the 1980s, lead singer and songwriter Gordon Gano was still in high school. His lyrics were notable for their unfettered expression of youthful pathos, typically via pleas for understanding, forgiveness, or—you guessed it—sex. Decades later, Gano, Sparrow, and Ritchie can’t quite stake the same claim to teen angst. Still, their anthems have remained a fount of catharsis for young people across generations. This was plain to see at the Novo. Headbanging teens and twentysomethings shared the pit with Gen Xers who had clearly treasured the record for years. Dudes in trucker hats square-danced alongside moshing femmes (who were, thankfully, less “violent” than simply rowdy). Everyone shouted along to the frenetic crescendos of “Kiss Off” and “Add It Up.”
In a retrospective piece for AllMusic, critic Steve Huey pointed out that the self-titled album’s strikingly dark sound pays homage to Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, all the while boasting a uniquely punky edge. In later years, Violent Femmes further distinguished themselves from their predecessors by leaning into folk, country, and gospel influences. It was a joy to watch the band indulge this more experimental side during the latter half of their set. As Gano sang the concluding lines of “Good Feeling” and transitioned into the earnest hymn “Jesus Walking on the Water” from sophomore album Hallowed Ground, I found myself spellbound. Also from Hallowed Ground, “Country Death Song” proved another standout, with its twangy fingerpicking and suspenseful bass line. (Here’s hoping that 2024 signals the return of the murder ballad!)
After the band’s encore (featuring “I’m Not Gonna Cry,” an especially catchy track from the more recent release Hotel Last Resort), the audience—Gen Xers, square-dancing dudes, and all—remained frozen in front of the stage, willing the Femmes to emerge one more time.
Photo by contributor.
LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.
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