The Femmes take the Michigan Theater by storm

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 4:53pm

On the heels of their summer tour with Echo & The Bunnymen, Milwaukee-bred folk-punkers Violent Femmes came to the Michigan Theater last Sunday as their last stop through the Midwest. I went in with ridiculously high hopes, and I’m still struggling to formulate the right words –– the Femmes delivered. The show was insane and punk and, in the best way possible, it wilted me a little.

Opener Brett Newski was more than notable, charming us with his self-deprecating humor and raw, conversational voice that fits in oh-so-smoothly with the Femmes’s style. I hadn’t heard of him before Sunday, but I’m still humming the lyrics to “D.I.Y.” from his album Land Air Sea Garage: “I’m D.I.Y. / I’m punk as fuck / Don’t need your money / I don’t want your love.” Strikingly vulnerable, Newski stunned.

Shortly after Newski ended, the Femmes strolled down the theater’s far left aisle, its members playing an array of woodwinds while making their way to the stage.

Currently comprised of Gordon Gano (singer, songwriter, guitarist), Brian Ritchie (bassist) and John Sparrow (drummer), the trio was accompanied by Blaise Garza on the contrabass saxophone. The contrabass is bigger than I am, and it cuts deep [editor’s note: the contrabass saxophone is the subject of the greatest YouTube video of all time]. I could feel its sound reverberating in my chest, trickling to my toes, shooting out my fingers.

There’s no way other to put it: the Femmes rocked out. Everyone was on a high from their over-eager yearning and adolescent anguish, and it left no room for Gano to address the audience or try and crack a joke. He kept conversation to a minimum, and it heightened this feeling of a reclaiming of self-agency that was zipping through the room.

“Blister in the Sun,” the massive hit from their 1983 debut album Violent Femmes, came early in the set. It was everything my double-clapping, anti-establishment, angst-whispering heart wanted it to be. Hands were up, feet were stomping and every single person sang every single word.

Weaving through their repertoire of fan-favorites, “Kiss Off,” also from Violent Femmes, stormed up mid-set and stole my voice because there’s no way not to shout “everything, everything, everything, everything.”

Despite my screeching, the awkward dancing space in the theater and the old man flailing about in front of me, the scene was perfect. It was perfect because of my screeching and the awkward dancing and the old man’s flailing; it was perfect because Gano and his comrades are outlandishly talented.

The whole night went like this: Bopping, grooving, hollering, getting dizzy and doing it all again. Everyone was howling for them to play “American Music,” (from Why Do Birds Sing?) and when Gano crooned that initial honeyed, keen, intoxicating question — “Do you like American music?” — I had never, in my 19 years, felt more patriotic.

The set ended with the loudest calling for an encore I’ve ever witnessed. My left ear might have bled a little. So, I whistled pathetically and raged for the Femmes to keep playing, and when they came back out with “Werewolf,” I whistled and raged even more.

There’s a reason the Femmes have been cult heroes since the ’80s: They’re bluegrass and funk and rock and jazz and roots, all while existing in this oasis of flip-the-table, rip-your-shirt American punk. They’ve never tried to be a sound that they’re not, and they don’t sound like anyone but themselves. Nailing down pubescent malaise and existential yearning in the clearest, most unfiltered way, the Femmes are on a plane of their own. So, be free and listen to them (and Brett Newski, while you’re at it) and live in their vulnerabilities and maybe even cry some, because God, don’t you just love American music?