Violent Femmes payed San Francisco a very special visit the past Friday night with a headlining show at the Fillmore. It would be easy enough to discount the show as another case of an old act reuniting for the festival circuit and a fat nostalgia-funded paycheck, but the folks that sold out the venue knew better … Violent Femmes may have taken a few breaks over the years, but as pioneers in punk rock, they’re no less relevant today than they were the day they dropped their self-titled debut back in 1983.
The evening kicked off at 9 pm with a 45 minute set by sitar virtuoso, Ashwin Batish. Watching this guys fingers dance across the fretboard (do they call it that?), there’s no doubt that Ashwin (who wore a “Sitars Rock” hat on stage) could pull off Slayer’s Raining Blood on the sitar even better than that guy on the banjo, but he didn’t. Certainly likable, undeniably skilled and no doubt entertaining, Ashwin wowed the crowd as he apparently fused the traditional Indian instrument with Western themes. “Who here likes jazz? This is called Bombay Boogie.” “Who here likes funk?” Yeah, you get the idea. For the uninitiated (like the guy typing this), the funk and the jazz and the punk all sounded like sitar but there’s no denying the shredding skills of Ashwin and his 17 year old son on drums. The audience was attentive and appreciative but the biggest cheer came when Brian Ritchie stepped on stage during the first song to join in on a wooden flute.
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There was no doubt that the single reason the floor was packed was due to Violent Femmes, and when 10 pm came and went, the jostling along the barricade started to intensify. After what seemed forever (but was only 23 minutes), Gordon and the Brians along with their cajón player. Gano slung his Telecaster and stepped up to the mic, Ritchie hefted his giant mariachi-style acoustic bass, and without a word were they off.
VF started the set by playing their entire eponymous album front to back in its entirety. Starting with Blister in the Sun was like 0 to 60 in under 5 seconds … no time to catch your breath as the entire place went nuts, singing and dancing along. If anyone was wondering what that giant saxophone was for, the mystery was solved when mid-way through Confessions, the Horns of Dilemma strode out on stage and answered that question. By this time, everyone was with the program and pretty much knew what was coming next. As if not already clear what was going on, Ritchie pointed out that they were playing a lot of songs off of their first LP and, “at this point we would turn it [the record] over.”
One thing that seeing Violent Femmes live underscores is their ability as musicians. You listen to their recordings and you really don’t get a good sense of all that goes on between Ritchie’s mastery over that massive mariachi bass to Gordon’s multi-instrumentalism (guitar, fiddle, banjo) to Viglione’s insane energy on the stand-up drum kit (if you gave the guy a seat, there’s no way he would have been able to sit in it). This really hit home watching Ritchie rip on the xylophone, truly nailing Gone Daddy Gone.
With their first album played, you may think that everyone would ease up a bit. Not so in the least. Neither the band nor the audience were anywhere near done and when they launched into Jesus Walking on the Water, the crowd seemed to even kick things up a notch. Kids with the babysitter, Uber app installed and at the ready on the smartphone, this crowd was up for a good time in it for the long haul. The drinks were flowing and things teetered just on that edge of getting sloppy. Just where you want things to be.
Throughout more Horns of Dilemma, solos and introductions (Brian impressively remembering all those names), the energy on stage and off remained high as Ritchie imparted some wisdom on the crowd, “Drummers are like martinis. One is not enough, two is too many and three is just right.” A quick look at the watch revealed that they were 90 minutes into their before finally taking a short break!
Returning to the stage, Gordon led the band through a new song (My Living Body) that, according to him, “Nobody’s ever heard this before … I’m the only one.” What resulted was an impressive piece of improvisation on the part of the dozen or so people that were backing him up. Alas all things must come to an end and there was a glaring omission from the setlist so far, “I think half of you know what’s coming next.” After a quick poll, it was probably more than half that knew the 1 hour and 45 minute set would be coming to a close with American Music.
- Blister in the Sun
- Kiss Off
- Please Do Not Go
- Add It Up
- Prove My Love
- To the Kill
- Gone Daddy Gone
- Good Feeling
- Jesus Walking on the Water
- Country Death Song
- Old Mother Reagan
- Freak Magnet
- Hallowed Ground
- Never Tell
- Black Girls
- If We Were Lovers
- My Living Body (new song; with sitar, etc.)
- American Music
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