I was really supposed to be watching Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Diplo last night, but since I’d never seen the Femmes before, I figured it was my duty as a Milwaukeean to check them out once in my life…
Many seasoned Summerfest patrons will recall lining up at the main gate prior to the grounds opening up, scrambling to get through the turnstiles right at noon and making the mad dash to the Marcus Amphitheater to procure a fluorescent handstamp and a guaranteed spot on the lawn for that night’s headlining performance by, oh, let’s say The Spin Doctors. At some point around the turn of the millennium, Summerfest took pity on those who were perpetually paranoid that they’d sweat the handstamp off and switched to bracelets, and while the bracelet suddenly became the ubiquitous emblem of the burgeoning destination-festival scene across the country, there was still no better bargain than ten bucks for Tom Petty at the Marcus, even though you had to hang around the grounds and try to resist buying pizza puffs before they’d let you have a reentry pass at 3 p.m. But at some point, Summerfest started getting stingy with the wristbands, and for the past several years it seemed that the free pass for the earlybirds was a thing of the past. This year, though, Summerfest threw a bone to the hometown Violent Femmes fans and offered the wristbands for opening day; if the promotion had actually been announced at some point, perhaps there would have been more than a tiny smattering of folks on the lawn for Wednesday’s marquee show.
Surely the Femmes wouldn’t get the top slot over The Avett Brothers anywhere but here; the folkies-turned-eclectic-pop-stars played an energetic, crowd-pleaser of a set, but the Avetts’ forays into hard rock (“Paul Newman Vs. The Demons” was the most accidentally cheesy moment of the night) were real head-scratchers. The best parts were the raucous folk-rock rave-ups like “Distraction #74” and of course “Kick Drum Heart", but overall this set was a disjointed mess compared to the Brothers' performance at Summer Camp a few weeks ago.
The Femmes came out to riotous applause and seemed for all the world like they were getting along fine. Their set was a bit uneven; the opening rendition of “Blister In The Sun” was basically an awkward lounge-act version, with singer Gordon Gano coming off as genuinely bitter and detached, but as soon as they broke into “Kiss Off” (the meat of the set was the band’s classic 1983 debut in its entirety) he seemed to throw himself into the performance with real emotion. Gano has always been the Femmes’ raison d’être and weakest link at the same time, and his guitar playing was perhaps predictably sloppy, but he recaptured the glory years pretty well with his singing. Bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo were excellent throughout, and the most intense musical moments featured the Horns Of Dilemma, a force of their own (Sigmund!) who created a glorious din particularly at the end of “Confessions.” And what Summerfest would be complete without a Sammy Llanas appearance? He dueted with Gano on “Good Feeling” for the Hallmark moment of the night. The set-closer was “American Music,” and Gano was at his best; even at age 50, his prophet/sociopath act is about the most punk-rock attitude Summerfest is ever likely to embrace.