the violent femmes can still do anything

anu bar, canberra, march 13 2016

words and photos by konrad lenz

Back in '95 I saw the Violent Femmes at the Alternative Nation festival in Sydney. I was way back in the crowd, about 300 metres from the stage but I was glad to see them.

They did a great set finishing on a song with Lou Reed, What Goes On, an old Velvets number. The sound person forgot to turn Lou's microphone on. It was, sadly, the greatest musical moment I never heard. I'm pretty sure the foldback speakers were on for the band so they wouldn't have known there was a problem.

When the song finished there was some sporadic applause, Gordon Gano seemed surprised that there wasn't much of a response to Lou's guest spot. "C'mon, it's Lou Reed." More sporadic applause. If only Lou's microphone had been switched on...

Fast forward to Wednesday March 9 2016. The place - the ANU Bar. It was packed. Xylouris White, a great two piece consisting of Jim White of the Dirty Three on drums and George Xylouris on the Cretan eight stringed lute and vocals had just played. They sounded unique and there was a glorious looseness to their playing. At one point Jim White had taken one of his boots off and used it to dampen the sound of a drum. It stayed there for the rest of their set. That was something I hadn’t seen in a gig before. Great stuff. I liked these guys a helluva lot, they gained a new fan.

But the Femmes were going to be on soon. You could feel the anticipation in the air. You could also sense that "are they going to be any good like they used to be" feeling. For a long time the Femmes have meant a lot to a lot of people. Bands with their sort of history have to compete with the strong memories of their audiences and memories can be a hard act to follow.

There was that sense of nostalgia starting to rise, both for the band and for the venue. For a regular sized bar in a university in a small town (though it's the nation's capital, Canberra is a small town) the ANU Bar has had a long and illustrious history - back in the day Nirvana played there, the Damned played there, Lou played there and the Femmes have played there on a number of occasions going back to 1984. It's a perfect venue to see live music, the sound is great and it's small and informal enough that it's easy to get close to the stage.

The Femmes took to the stage. I was three metres away from Gordon Gano for the duration of their set, it was a good vantage point to watch the show and take photos. They’ve have been busy lately. After breaking up a couple of times and not releasing an album in over fifteen years they've come up with a great new EP, Happy New Year, followed by a great new album, We Can Do Anything.

I'm aware of the personal differences that had split the band but they seem to have put that behind them, buried the hatchet. And unlike a lot of acts that have been around for more than 30 years the Femmes are as good as ever. A lot of acts become stale, I've seen some older bands that are incredibly tight, that play with machine-like precision but that sadly were just going through the motions. Often, over time, the spark that made a band special in the first place is lost. I'm happy to report that's not the case with the Femmes. They still posses that spark, that vitality.

Onstage their songs are alive. Watching Brian Ritchie and Gordon Gano interact I kept thinking there was a genuine warmth, a strong bond that came across, that almost psychic connexion that some musicians who play together for years often possess. Whatever differences they've had, it's like they’re still musical siblings.

There was also a warmth for the audience. I think part of what makes the Femmes special is that when you watch them they don't feel separate from the audience. It's not so much us and them, rather they’re part of the crowd. It's that connexion again.

Like most of the best music they strip it down to the basics. Gano has a knack for distilling a lot of real feelings into a three minute song. He makes it seem easy and the band makes it seem easy when they play. It takes great artists to do this. And there's that feeling of improvisation. The Femmes don't play jazz but they have that thing that all great jazz bands have of creating a solid framework and still improvising within it and around it.

I love Gano's singing. Even now in his fifties he sings with youthful exuberance. Is it trying to reconnect to our youth that keeps us coming back for more? That may be part of it, I don't know, but if it is that's fine 'cause the feelings are still real. Nothing came across as affectation and there's a lot more going for this band than just our nostalgia for our lost youth. I loved seeing Brian Ritchie's hands moving across his big acoustic bass guitar. He really has his own approach, when you are watching him his playing is almost brutish in intensity. I rate him highly, he's fantastic. Drummer John Sparrow was every bit as good as original drummer Victor DeLorenzo. Oh, and Sparrow used a charcoal grill barbecue as part of the drum kit. That was the second thing that happened that night that I’d never seen at a gig before.

The band's sound was filled out with Blaise Garza - who Gano said has been playing with the Femmes since he was fourteen years old - on saxophone and second guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Hamilton, who, from where I was standing was hidden in the background. They added a lot. There was a moment there where Hamilton used a trumpet as a guitar slide. That was the third thing that night that I'd never seen at a gig before. The extra instruments didn't overload the raw sound. They fitted perfectly, they belonged.

There were great dynamics to the set, no dead spots, the new songs were as good as the old ones and the old ones haven't aged and were played with the same intensity as they ever were. Love Love Love Love Love, a cover of a Jake Brebes song on the recent EP, was a highlight for me. It's a beauty. Memory was great too as were all the other new songs: Good For/At Nothing, Travelling Solves Everything and I Could Be Anything. And of the old numbers I really loved hearing Good Feeling. That song always hits me hard, it floors me every time. And Jesus Walking on the Water and Gone Daddy Gone. Wow.

I remember as a teenager in the 90s the Femmes were just about the only band around that really thrilled me. They were the only band that really felt like they connected. They still do. I don't know about the future but somehow I imagine they'll always hit that spot. I hope they're around for another couple of decades at least. Bands like the Femmes make us feel like we can do anything. We need them. We really do.


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