Everything about MTelus is a little curious tonight. Looking around the crowd, it’s a split between normal looking middle-aged adults and Halloween costume-adorning twenty-and-thirty-somethings. The stage setup is curious too; for a band like Violent Femmes who you may perceive as lo-fi and garage punk, there’s an incredibly diverse array of instruments on stage, ranging from a MASSIVE vertical cymbal, half the size of a man, and an even more massive saxophone, which stands a full foot or two taller than your average man.
The arrival of the Milwaukee legends on stage is also one of the more bizarre stage entrances you’ll see. The lights drop, everyone cheers… and they appear from the door below the balcony on the right of the theatre. They form a procession through the crowd, playing their instruments unplugged, and head through the floor section to the other side of the room, through the door, and onto the stage. Already, you get the sense you’re in for a treat.
And what a treat. It’s immediately apparent that the wide array of instrumentation on stage is not just for decoration, as the set opens in almost Middle Eastern fashion, thanks to a snake-charming trumpet sound courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Blaise Garza. Drummer John Sparrow then leaves the box-drum he was sitting on (and drumming on simultaneously) and brings the skiffle drum sound to the middle of the stage between the two remaining founding members of the band, bassist Brian Ritchie and guitarist Gordon Gano. Arguably the bands two biggest songs arrive early in the set, with the epic Blister In The Sun eliciting a full-on mosh pit right off the bat. The band drop back from their mics altogether to let the crowd sing the breakdown, which they do in deafening fashion. Before anyone can take a breath, the unmistakable intro to Kiss Off boots in, and the thunderous singalong continues. Brian shreds through an impressive acoustic bass solo at the front edge of the stage, before the resonant crowd vocals return for the count-up part of the conclusion, which is just as spectacular, hearing a couple of thousand people shouting “EIGHT, EIGHT, I FORGET WHAT EIGHT WAS FOR!” Unquestionably this brace of songs was my personal set highlight.
That’s not to suggest there weren’t many other highlights. The multi-instrumentation is on show from start to finish. Gordon rotates between a guitar, a mandolin, and a violin, while Brian dabbles with the glockenspiel on the wonderful Gone Daddy Gone towards the end of the set. Now, these are instruments you see from time to time at a show, but how’s about a CONCH?! Yep, Brian whips one of those out too on Black Girls, for an actual conch solo. No, you definitely haven’t seen that before. Blaise is a true star as well, bellowing out deep whale calls on the giant sax on a few occasions, and looking like he is going to explode at any second, as well as rotating between various other brass instruments throughout. After Gimme The Car, John is the one to smack the big vertical cymbal by way of starting Black Girls, and tonight’s opener Your Smith joins in on trumpet duty. There’s so much going on on-stage all evening!
The encore is pretty special too. After Gordon says “thank y’all very much for coming out to hear us play!”, he plays a song entirely in French, strumming his violin like a guitar in some sort of French-Bluegrass fusion, prompting lighters to spring into the air around the packed MTelus. Another huge singalong ensues as he strums the opening bars to American Music, as well as on the final song Add It Up. The pit bursts into life once more; it’s been bustling and heaving all evening, giving birth to more than a handful of crowdsurfers, and gives its last vestiges of energy howling “ADD IT UP! ADD IT UP!” on the furious outro. After things draw to a close after 24 songs and 90 minutes, a roadie (or maybe a tour manager?) announces that the band would be signing Merch at the back in 15 minutes or so. Don’t see that often at Metropolis either! A really great show from start to finish, and proof that almost 40 years into their existence as a band, Violent Femmes still have the power to surprise.
Review & photos – Simon WilliamsShare this :