The Violent Femmes played the University Theater in April 1992—a big show back then, especially for the punk and "alt-rock" scene. Afterward, co-founder of and writer for the Indy Erik Cushman wrote what appears to be a fierce—and kind of hilarious—defense of the show against a negative review from UM's Kaiman:
"Sophistry, the ignoble art of specious reasoning being passed off as truth, depends completely on style and presentation for its plausibility. Hack editorializing, bumbled logic, crass misrepresentation and grievous factual errors undermine the intent of the lie…The Truth is that the Violent Femmes show in the University Theatre last Sunday night was a wonderful success … The acoustics were clear and sharp, the ambiance ranged from subtle backdrop to rowdy rock n roll light show... plenty of different age groups grooved together. There were slam dancers in the pit … the band members were sincerely happy to be in Missoula."
My recollection of the show is the same as Cushman's—it was electric. But, more importantly, I think his words reflect the kind of rabid, adoring fans the Violent Femmes have collected and kept over the years. Even at the 1992 show, the crowd was singing along. The fact that their return to Missoula last night—24 years later—for a sold-out show at the Wilma also included an equally exuberant audience says something about this band's cult power. Some of those songs I'd heard more recently—"Add it Up" and "Blister in the Sun"—but I hadn't heard "American Music" or "Kiss Off" in at least a decade, and I still knew the words:
"I take one one one cause you left me and
Two two two for my family and
Three three three for my heartache and
Four four four for my headaches and
Five five five for my lonely…"
Let's start at the beginning. Opener Phoebe Bridgers stumbled over a Guided By Voices song before scrapping it for one of her originals. It would have been fun to hear some GBV, but fortunately her songs are amazing enough. Bridgers is a stellar singer, and once she got into the groove she had the audience's affection. "This is a love song about murder," she said smiling, introducing "Killer." Her sound evokes Bright Eyes and Whiskeytown, so it's no surprise she recently recorded on Ryan Adams' label, Pax-Am.
After her set, stagehands started hoisting instruments to the stage. My friends and I, one of whom had also been to the 1992 show, started counting. We saw 18 instruments up there, including a giant 7-foot-tall contrabass saxophone, several guitars, a xylophone and a Weber grill. Throughout the show, we'd see more—percussion instruments, a tiny guitar and a tiny saxophone—and it seemed like we lost count past 22. Some of the instruments were used only once, in one part of a song. That's how the Violent Femmes roll—they're weird like that.
Singer/guitarist Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie are the only original members, though John Sparrow hit the drums like he'd been playing with the band for years and not just months. For one song, I can't remember which one, his drumming style was a dead-ringer for Gene Krupa.
The set-list was built for crowd-pleasing. The band started out with "Blister in the Sun" and ended their encore with "Add it Up," and everything in between jumped from old favorites to a few new ones. A couple of their newest tunes—"I Could Be Anything" and "Traveling Solves Everything"—felt more like something you'd find on KUFM's the Pea Green Boat, and with much less interesting lyrics than those children's songs. But others, like "Issues," which Ritchie claimed they'd just shot a video for in the dressing room of the Wilma, felt like old-school Femmes—loopy and a little dark.
Just like years ago, the band did, in fact, seem happy to be there. At one point, they false started a song and Gano said with genuine awe, "I don't even remember the last time that happened." To which Ritchie replied, "I think we're getting a contact high up here."
The crowd, probably averaging 40-something, still seemed as bizarre as a Femmes crowd has always been. The mosh pit, featuring two or three mohawks, really got going during "Gimme the Car," a bonus track I'd forgotten about from the band's 1983 eponymous debut album.
Gano's voice hasn't changed a bit, it's still nasally and whiny (in a good way), but I'd forgotten how rad Ritchie is on his big bass. He thumped and plucked brazenly, peacocking around on stage in a swagger. And his xylophone solo on "Add It Up"? Butter. What made them good is that they didn't change a thing. The only exception was the young horn player, Blaise Garza, who was two-years-old in 1992, but nevertheless had grown up to embrace the Femmes particular brand of dark folk-punk. It was a night of delirious sing-a-long fun.
I'm not sure if the Femmes are just a beloved artifact of the early 1990s for those of us who were there, or if they are timeless. Whatever the case, the streets outside after the show were full of happy, sweaty people still singing, "Why can't I get just one kiss? Why can't I get just one kiss." And since then, those contagious lines haven't left my head.
Photographer Amy Donovan was in the crowd. Check out her photos of Phoebe Bridgers and Violent Femmes here: