Review: '80s alt-icons Violent Femmes offer crowd-pleasing show

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If Wednesday night’s sold-out show at the Winspear was any indication, the love is most certainly not gone for the Violent Femmes.

Not that the ‘80s alt-rock icons were unaware of this going in; they started off their two set concert with a P.A. announcement informing the audience that they WILL ask for an encore. It’s probably not giving anything away to say that yes, the audience did demand one after listening to the band play both their self-titled debut album and follow-up Hallowed Ground over two sets in economical fashion.

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The reverse order in which they did this made for an interesting twist. Hallowed Ground saw Gordon Gano letting loose with a few of his more Christian-themed tunes that had been piling up since the band’s formation in 1981. It was something of a shock at the time, most listeners unsure as to whether there was a large wink happening with songs like Jesus Walking on the Water and the title track. Turns out there wasn’t, though the jubilant bounce of Jesus Walking was enough to loosen up even the most stridently anti-religious.

They’ve played these songs now for over 40 years, but the intensity is still there. I Hear the Rain was a breathless rush of dread, Country Death Song just as jarringly horrifying as any Appalachian murder ballad. You can now hear what wasn’t really heard at the time: dark, proto alt-country with dashes of gospel and the Velvet Underground. We’ll leave it to social media to debate the song Black Girls, which they performed as enthusiastically and earnestly as they did back in 1984; it’s possible they’ve been given the Randy Newman pass. We will speak no more of this beyond the fact that it would sound great as a mashup with Sing Sing Sing.

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Hallowed Ground has grown in critical estimation over the years, but the debut has never faltered in either critic or public estimation. For many people, including those barely aware of their existence, it’s this album that has forever sealed their image: horny, desperate, three-chord diary entries from a trio of seething social malcontents. That’s why the opening bass riff from Blister in the Sun almost immediately prompted audience members into the aisle to dance, and that’s why the big sound block of sexual frustration that is Add It Up had the crowd chanting along to the verse: “why can’t I get just one…”

Word is that founding members Brian Ritchie and Gordon Gano operate on an unspoken detente after years of bitter attacks and recriminations. If so, they do a good job of hiding any ill will and the musical chemistry is alive and powerful, with drummer and relative newcomer Brian Viglione finding the perfect space between loose and tight in their dynamic. Gano’s vocals are still strong and keening, Ritchie is a monster of a bassist able to shoehorn in busy lines without capsizing a song. The sporadic addition of The Horns of Dilemma on numbers like Add It Up was a nice touch, especially when auxiliary Femme Blaise Garza played the contrabass saxophone, an instrument larger than he is.

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By the end people were dancing in the aisles to Gone Daddy Gone, wandering up front to take photos, or just nodding happily at the band. They wound things up with a few scattered numbers during the promised encore including American Music, which they dedicated to engineer Eric “ET” Thorngren, who had mixed the song back in 1991 and who had passed away on Wednesday evening. All in all, as perfect a show as you could have hoped for.

Violent Femmes

When: Wednesday night
Where: Winspear Centre

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