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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Return of The Violent Femmes

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No one was more surprised than Violent Femmes’ drummer Victor DeLorenzo when the play button was pressed and the band’s six-year pause ended. “Gordon [Gano] called me last October, on John Lennon’s birthday,” he recalls. The unexpected message from the Femmes’ singer-songwriter was simple: Their manager had the opportunity to book the band at the annual Coachella Festival in Indio, Calif., and wondered if the Femmes would want to play.

Then again, as DeLorenzo adds, “It was a surprise for all three of us that we caught on.” The Milwaukee band’s self-titled 1983 debut album didn’t sell well initially but soon became a unique touchstone for restless adolescents everywhere. By now it’s been the soundtrack—maybe even the light in the darkness—for two or three generations troubled by that unpleasant rite of passage called high school and the unsettled emotions of teenage life.

And then again, DeLorenzo and bassist Brian Ritchie originally had no intention of sticking with Gano long enough to cut a single, much less an enduring album. “We were going to move to Minneapolis and form a band,” DeLorenzo says. “But Brian and I never made it up there.” Something clicked quickly and a small local following encouraged the trio to continue hanging around Milwaukee’s East Side. Famously “discovered” by The Pretenders on the corner of Farwell and North, they were added to the British band’s show at the Oriental Theatre—but those moments in the spotlight were more a morale booster than a deal maker.

Even after DeLorenzo’s dad lent the band money to record that first album, the odds were against a band that sounded like no one else in the world. “I have drawers of rejection letters,” DeLorenzo says, but the demo finally caught the ears of Slash Records in Los Angeles. It became that true rarity, an epochal album in the increasingly long, drawn-out history of rock ’n’ roll.

Little wonder The Violent Femmes performed that first album in its entirety—and in the tracking order of its 10 songs—for their first two reunion shows at Coachella and the follow-up at Napa’s BottleRock festival. They plan the same format for their upcoming return to Summerfest.

“Swarming might be a good description of the Coachella response,” Ritchie says of their first concert. “After we kicked off the set with ‘Blister in the Sun’ it looked like insects around spilt honey as they descended from other stages. It was a mixed demographic, but as usual there was a whole new group of teenagers familiar with the songs and singing along. This regeneration of the fan base has been the most remarkable thing about the band over the decades.”

Not everyone would be as cruel as the editors of Spin magazine’s Alternative Record Guide, who dismissed everything the Femmes recorded after their debut as “beyond marginal” and “fairly silly.” And yet, nothing released since then has had the impact of those starkly recorded first songs with their deceptive simplicity and naked emotions, and an undercurrent of free jazz propelling them beyond the narrow boundaries of folk or punk. Looking like Sal Mineo and sounding like a teenage Lou Reed, Gano shifted from defiance to suicide in a heartbeat.

“There was not a lot of dust to shake off,” Ritchie says of the Femmes’ rehearsal in Los Angeles to prepare for their short summer tour. “The Femmes’ sound works within pretty well-defined parameters and it’s simple, so it’s like riding a bike.”

In addition to the first album, the Femmes will perform portions of their second LP, Hallowed Ground, and a smattering of later songs. For the Milwaukee show, the Horns of Dilemma, a free-floating lineup that will probably include local musicians Jeff Hamilton and John Sparrow, will join the trio.

As for Ritchie’s 2007 lawsuit against Gano, a Bleak House affair during which the former accused the latter of “greed, insensitivity and poor taste” for licensing their signature song, “Blister in the Sun,” for a Wendy’s commercial, Ritchie says: “We’ve gotten over it.”

All of the original Femmes have been busy without the band, producing, playing sessions, releasing solo albums. DeLorenzo’s new album features Gano on one selection, “Dr. Um.” An expatriate in Australia for many years, Ritchie is music curator for Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art and tours with The Break, a space-surf band he formed with members of Midnight Oil.

“For me, the Femmes function as another project I’m working on, albeit one that means a lot to the other musicians and the public,” Ritchie says. “At this point in my musical life I only work on things if they’re fun. These gigs have been, and if that continues, we’ll go on.”

The Violent Femmes will perform Wednesday, June 26 at the Marcus Amphitheater with The Avett Brothers, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Ivan and Alyosha at 7 p.m.