There are two groups of Milwaukee music fans: the group that enthusiastically answers “Violent Femmes!” when asked to name the city’s most influential band, and the group that rolls its eyes when confronted with the first group’s answer. (There’s a third group—Milwaukee music fans under the age of 30—who don’t care either way.) That first group was ecstatic Thursday night, when the Femmes played the free, third-annual “Cheers to Milwaukee” show at Riverside Theater. It was the Violent Femmes! It was free! It was hosted by Miller Brewing and the Riverside! It was good!
Are most of Violent Femmes’ best and well-known songs from their 1983 self-titled debut? Well, yes–so why not just play the whole thing? That’s exactly what the band (Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie, John Sparrow) did Thursday night, kicking things off with “Blister In The Sun,” making their way through “Kiss Off” and “Add It Up,” and finishing with “Good Feeling.” The packed, rowdy crowd couldn’t have been happier.
So let’s talk about that debut album. Violent Femmes is a near-perfect introduction, on par with debuts like Please Please Me, Three Feet High And Rising, and Marquee Moon. “Blister” is the near-perfect introduction to that near-perfect introduction, all rubbery riffs, clanging acoustic bass, and skittish drums. (Founding drummer Victor DeLorenzo is no longer with the band, but his current gig, Nineteen Thirteen, is great.) Gano’s lyrics—delivered vis his nasal-drip voice—manage to cram in references to getting high and masturbation. It’s par for the course for an album that reads like a desperate missive from every misunderstood teen’s hormone-addled brain: “Kiss Off” revels in misery and then dismisses it (“They’ll hurt me bad but I won’t mind / They’ll hurt me bad they do it all the time”), “Please Do Not Go” pines after a “lovely girl” who’s with “another guy,” and “Add It Up” combines good ol’ sexual frustration (“Why can’t I get just one fuck?”) with one of the best musical climaxes of the ’80s. And those are just the first four songs.
And, Thursday night, that was just the beginning. Following the full-album workout, Gano and company played other classic tunes (“Jesus Walking On The Water,” from 1984’s Hallowed Ground; “I’m Nothing,” from 1994’s New Times), a few deep cuts (“Color Me Once,” from The Crow soundtrack), and even a new song (“This Free Ride,” from the upcoming Hotel Last Resort). There was also a nod to the recently departed Dr. John (“Iko Iko”), a perfect post-encore sendoff (“American Music”), and the best song in the history of recorded music (“I Held Her In My Arms”).
The “surprise headliner” element of past “Cheers” shows was scrapped this year in favor of just going ahead and announcing the headliner ahead of time. It was a wise move. Reactions were…mixed in previous years (everyone expected Dave Grohl to show up at 2017’s Chevy Metal show, but he didn’t), and hey, this year it was the Violent Femmes. If the city is going to have a default “famous” band, it should be happy that it’s this one.
Blister In The Sun
Please Do Not Go
Add It Up
Prove My Love
To The Kill
Gone Daddy Gone
Color Me Once
I Held Her In My Arms
This Free Ride
Gimme The Car
Jesus Walking On The Water
Country Death Song
Children Of The Revolution (T. Rex cover)
I’m Not Gonna Cry
Iko Iko (Dr. John cover)
Also, here’s Gano in an old episode of The Adventures Of Pete And Pete: