'Violent Femmes' (1983; Rhino's deluxe edition)'Hallowed Ground' (1984)'The Blind Leading the Naked' (1986)'Add It Up (1981-1993)' (1993)'Freak Magnet' (2000)
The Violent Femmes bring their classic alterna-rock to the North Bay
By Greg Cahill
My sole recollections of the Violent Femmes in concert are based on an encounter nearly 20 years ago at the now-defunct Sleeping Lady Cafe in Fairfax, a vegetarian restaurant that offered John Cale and Green on Red, among other seminal alternative rock acts, served up with steaming cups of herbal tea and the best veggie burger around. The Milwaukee-bred Femmes were pretty wasted that night on what appeared to be mushrooms--bassist Brian Ritchie kept tripping out because he thought I resembled dada-rocker Captain Beefheart (and I did, sort of).
But what I remember most was that drummer Victor De Lorenzo played one of the best percussion solos I'd ever heard before or since. And he did it by applying a set of wire brushes to a scant drum kit that consisted of a snare turned sideways in place of a kick drum, a beat-up tambourine, and a metal washtub inverted on a floor tom that echoed in a decidedly weird fashion, even if you hadn't ingested mescaline that night.
It was the perfect showcase for the band's punked up, folk-jazz hybrid.
"Oh, yeah," says Ritchie when I catch up to him last week. "That was the trance-o-phone. Strangest thing--he just broke it a couple of weeks ago after all those years. Guess it's time for a trip to the hardware store."
What are the odds?
Despite an on-again, off-again career that sometimes has left this highly creative band in the same spotty shape as the rickety trance-o-phone, the Femmes are holding their own these days. Ritchie, standing on the tip of Manhattan with cell phone in hand, takes a few minutes to contemplate the state of the group that the All Music Guide has called "the textbook American cult band of the 1980s."
It's been 20 years since their 1983 self-titled debut became a college radio hit, spurred on by singer-songwriter Gordon Gano's angst-ridden anthems (including a couplet that pondered, "Why can't I get just one fuck? / Guess it's got something to do with luck") and the band's sparse arrangements. Now the Femmes are on the last leg of an anniversary tour that brings them to Petaluma.
Last year, Rhino Records issued an expanded two-CD anniversary version of that debut release, complete with rare demos and a separate disc filled with contemporaneous live material, prompting De Lorenzo to rejoin the band after a nine-year absence. "We didn't rehearse or anything after he returned," says Ritchie, a former factory worker who grew up listening to the Velvet Underground, Sun Ra, and minimalist popsmith Jonathan Richman. "We just got up onstage and played.
"If we don't know how to sound like the Violent Femmes after 22 years, then we might as well hang it up," he adds with a laugh.
Musically, the Femmes cast a very wide net. The band started in 1982 when Gano joined Ritchie and De Lorenzo, who had been experimenting with a raw acoustic-based sound. "What we saw was that most bands were trying to create a false energy by simply turning their amplifiers up or by banging on the drums really loudly," Ritchie explains. "We decided to explore another option. Our main prototype was the Velvet Underground, which did play with a lot of loud feedback. We just thought it would be nice to play that kind of music but with the rhythms you might find in bluegrass or the improvisation you might find in jazz.
"In some ways, that's what the early rock and roll acts were doing--people like Jerry Lee Lewis--but it got loud really quickly. It was sort of like those early acts were fighting the arms race or something."
Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders discovered the Femmes and helped them land a record deal with Slash Records (home of Los Lobos and other roots and cowpunk acts). Their 1983 debut never charted, but it became a cult hit and eventually reached platinum sales. Gano's fundamentalist Christian beliefs emerged on their 1984 follow-up Hallowed Ground. Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads produced their third and most accessible album, 1986's The Blind Leading the Naked, which features a cover of T-Rex's "Children of the Revolution," a slight hit.
Eventually, both Gano and Ritchie spun off solo projects and the band tapered off, with Gano's religious beliefs becoming an impediment for some fans.
However, the Femmes irrepressible pop resurfaced on soundtracks to such films as Grosse Pointe Blank, Mystery Men, and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. After a six-year silence, the band returned in 2000 with Freak Magnet, a return to form with its quirky folk-pop odes to moshin' and misbehavin'.
"I think we have our own little niche in the music world," Ritchie says, "and fortunately for us, people still appreciate that."
The Violent Femmes perform Tuesday, Sept. 16, at 8pm. at the Mystic Theater, 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. Tickets are $30. 707.765.2121.
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From the September 11-17, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.