On Wednesday, July 18th, I wondered… How many instruments does one four-man band need to play some folky songs? Looking across the stage at Atlanta’s State Bank Amphitheater during set-up, the crew had strewn out many instruments that are and aren’t normally seen in an orchestra band room. There was a massive bass sax, a snare drum and a Weber BBQ grill, a Schlagwerk Cajun drum box, banjo, conch shell, a plethora of brass instruments, a wooden flute, a xylophone, gong, acoustic bass and guitars.
There is only one explanation for all this instrument madness: this is probably a band from Wisconsin. What is it about Wisconsin that brings out the strangest parts of human behavior? Regardless, the punk folk wolves of Violent Femmes bayed at the cloudy moon of an Atlanta evening.
To open the show, the band did a choral parade in front of the stage with Brian Ritchie leading the way on flute, and the setup crew in tow, playing drums. They marched along until they appeared on stage, still playing.
On his huge acoustic bass guitar, Brian Ritchie showcased loose, funk-style string pulls. The Violent Femmes were all smiling, especially Gordon Gano, while singing. Saxophonist Blaise Garza was a consummate pro on several saxophones (including the huge eight-foot bass sax) and a small trombone. There was an overall happy feel to the show and sing-alongs were encouraged and welcomed.
Drummer and Weber grill player John Sparrow cheered the crowd on, and there wasn’t a still body in the house during “Blister in the Sun“. By the fifth song, “Breaking Up”, Sparrow had moved to the large box drum, then returned to the snares and grill later.
The Femmes’ style had always been eclectic but it was really displayed this night. Some things the band employed: fast folky singing, staccato rhythms, low harmonies or low vocals out of nowhere, quick tempo changes, a speedily sung song that lasted maybe a minute, rockabilly, individual solos for each band member, xylophone on lead melody to “Gone Daddy Gone”, increasing tempos, banjo, violin, conch shell blowing, and many saxophones.
Ritchie told a story about how Steve McKay (The Stooges) had donated a saxophone to the band, and Blaise Garza played it. That was exciting.
Gano said it was John Sparrow’s birthday, so everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to him. They said he would then do a 45-minute drum solo, during which, about five horn players show up (Horns of Dilemma), with one wearing a fez. They transitioned into “Black Girls” with lots of sax players, and Gano got out the violin and played quite intensely. A lady joined in on xylophone and Ritchie blew loudly on the conch shell. After that whole ordeal, the drum solo continued with precision and speed while Ritchie joined in on the drum box. The solo was not 45 minutes.
“American Music” was slowed down a bit from the recorded version, but Gano’s vocals were very clear, somehow unaffected by decades of performing. The vocals were slow while the musical tempo was fast, increasing in tempo faster and faster until the end.
Ritchie said “Goodnight,” but the crowd went wild with whistles, cheers and raucous noise that bring The Femmes quickly back onstage. Sparrow thanked the crowd for the birthday wishes, and then the encore began. First was a bit of “Day After Day”, which started slow as always, until the bass kicked in and the crowd was engaged. Then, there was the start of “Add it Up”, “How can I get just one…” in which Gano still did the two vocal styles during the song. Then, the band was gone, daddy, gone.