VIOLENT FEMMES Concert Review (5/11/16, Fillmore)
“Sax and Violence”
To say that the Violent Femmes’ concert at the Fillmore on May 11th was memorable would be an understatement. One of the primary highlights of the evening was the loving nods and tributes to Steve Mackay, tenor saxophonist and former member of the Stooges, who passed away in October. Steve was a long time Femmes collaborator (first playing with the band during their “The Blind Leading The Naked” album from 1986) and his presence was felt throughout the night.
Opener Carmaig de Forest was the first to tip his proverbial hat to Steve, singing the lyrics “…why’d it have to be you?…” in reference to Steve’s passing. For those that aren’t familiar with Carmaig’s repertoire, he was a perfect opener. From his trademark nasally, Jonathan Richman-like vocalizations, herky jerky neurotic performance style, intellectual lyrics and raw authenticity, the crowd responded positively to his increasingly accompanied stage presence. Initially gracing the stage in a stark minimalist fashion with his trusted ukulele (that only required the most minimal of adjustments thanks to a stage hand’s trusty Phillips screwdriver), Carmaig was soon accompanied by an increasingly crowded stage full of compatriots lending backup vocals and accompaniment. Amongst many talents, Carmaig is renowned for having toured and opened for other iconic musical acts (including the Ramones and Jane’s Addiction) over the years and it was great seeing him back in the spotlight performing to this welcoming audience.
By the time the Violent Femmes took the stage the crowd was poised and receptive. Whether it was through his adept violin, banjo or six string electric guitar plying, multi-instrumentalist Gordon Gano plucked and/or bowed strings like a virtuoso throughout the evening. Brian Ritchie’s unrelenting bass playing made him the standout stage presence of the night. Until this concert I hadn’t realized how much Ritchie’s signature bass playing best encapsulates the “Violent Femmes sound” (as I subjectively categorize it to be, as a fan). Relative newcomer John Sparrow energetically banged the skins (and even a BBQ at one point!) with excellent percussive timing. Lastly, saxophone player Blaise Garza (who, according to Brian Richie, was personally tutored by the late Steve MacKay at the young age of 14) seemed to channel Steve’s spirit, repeatedly playing the imposing 7-foot saxophone that graced the stage.
For this author, highlights of the night included any song that featured the young and talented Blaise on the giant saxophone, along with an extremely immersive, rocking version of “Never Tell” (originally released on their introspective “Hallowed Ground” album from 1984). Gordon also repeatedly paid loving tribute to Steve MacKay, performing an organic and seemingly impromptu performance of Steve’s “Expatriate” by authentically and honestly stating “I took the liberty of not memorizing the lyrics” as he read the words to the song off a sheet of paper. The band also showcased a number of songs off of their most recent March 2016 release (“We Can Do Anything”), their first full-length album in 15 years, which nicely accompanied their 80’s repertoire. The new single “Memory” off this album carried even more weight and significance bookended by classic tracks from over three decades ago, as this band (and its many fans) no doubt have a lot of memories associated with this influential music. They were also inspired to play a song that Gordon said he thought Steve would have liked which they have recorded but is not out yet, titled “Run With It” written by Spencer P Jones. The final encore song (and crowd favorite) “American Music” rounded out the evening to thunderous applause from the audience.
Thank you to Gordon, Brian, John, Blaise, Carmaig and the rest of the musicians who made this a very special evening. R.I.P. Steve MacKay (one of the saxiest men who ever lived).
They are definitely a band you want to catch live. For information on their current tour and also to pick up their latest album “We Can Do Anything”, check out:
Inner Edge Music