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Violent Femmes delight Spring Weekend crowd

Violent Femmes
Spring Weekend Concert.
Johnson Athletic Center.
April 23, 10 p.m.

By Vipul Bhushan
Contributing Editor

The Femmes' concert really started out on the wrong foot. Their opening band, Battle of the Bands winner Honest Bob and the Factory-to-Dealer Incentives, was passable, but didn't quite cut it as an opening band for the Violent Femmes. They seemed eager to please, but didn't even come close to entrancing the crowd. Their next to last song, however, "Be My Ex-Girlfriend," was pretty good, and don't just take my word for it -- the Femmes liked it too. I'd definitely buy the single if it were available. On the whole, they succeeded in filling up the air, but much of it was just that -- filler. Their attempts at faster-paced music resulted in much noise but little substance.

Well, I thought as the intermission started, it'll probably get better now. My optimism was premature. My friend watched my seat as I headed for the men's room, but surprise! The organizers had commandeered the men's washroom as an extra women's facility and banished the men to dark, smelly little stalls outside. Not only did the stalls not flush, there was no possibility of washing one's hands or rinsing one's face. Had the women been subjected to such indignities, every feminist radical on the East Coast would have been up in arms, urinating in urinals and burning bras for excretory equality.

The Femmes themselves started out a little bland. They began by playing some of their less well-known material, which didn't quite connect with a large part of the audience. There was a hard-core throng pushing up against the stage, a few of whose members were tossing each other and rolls of toilet paper around. This body-surfing crowd was having a blast -- though many of those head crashes looked kind of painful. A sizable chunk of the audience, however, merely sat expectantly in the bleachers. I remembered, with a tinge of nostalgia, the Femmes songs I had run into when I was an undergraduate. This tame band was surely not the same one that rocked crowds to "Blister in the Sun" during the last decade. It didn't take them long, however, to get to that very song, and they were now pulling more than the hard-core fans off the bleachers and onto the floor. Lead vocalist Gordon Gano began to get into it, and band and audience started to hit it off. Hard-hitting percussionist Victor DeLorenzo and cigar-smoking bassist Brian Ritchie supported Gano admirably.

Most people seemed to be having a good time by this point (although there was an odd administrative type or two standing around and looking slightly bewildered). The Femmes didn't seem satisfied with this partial success, though, and proceeded to aim the spotlight at the bleachers and coax all the shy people left in the seats to stand up -- milking the audience participation quotient for all it was worth.

They finished by jamming on stage for a while, then graced the audience with "American Music" (a fine song) and "Kiss Off" (you know -- the one with the backward countdown). "American Music" is newer -- only a year old (it has been a while since I've heard them), and shares with some of their other songs that neat ability to really engulf you in its beat. They finally ended by getting the bulk of their patrons to chant along with them as they sang "Listen to the Song. "

Unlike other concerts I've been to, no memorabilia was available, except for mediocre-looking T-shirts for $20 and $27 -- a little steep for just an average T-shirt. I guess the Femmes just aren't the souvenir types.

Having a band of the Violent Femmes' stature perform at MIT was a treat. This year's choice was no R.E.M. or Rush, but was nonetheless good. Advance ticket sales were reported to be in excess of 1,500, with the actual attendance close to 2,000. People began lining up before 8:00 though the doors didn't open until 9:00.

It's hard to say whether most people unfamiliar with any Violent Femmes music will like it or not. This decade-old trio from Milwaukee certainly has a following. That hauntingly distant croon and their sometimes pointed, sometimes more subtle rebellious mockery of suburban white-bread America certainly have caught the fancy of many. Their lyrics are risqu enough and the rhythm lively and brash, yet fluid and energetic enough to capture a broad cross section of the college crowd. They certainly struck a chord here -- the audience reveled in their music and managed to extract multiple encores from the Femmes. But enough said. If you haven't heard these folks before, you should definitely listen to some of their work, particularly something from the mid-1980s. The Violent Femmes may not become your favorite band, but they're worth a look-see. As for the concert, I think the enthusiastic demand for encores says it all. It was a night, and an $8, well spent.