One can almost envision the conversation leading to the Violent Femmes’ stage show, which preceded the more conservative, quirky balladry of Ben Folds at Surly Brewing Festival Field in the middle of a workweek this summer.
“Sure, we’ll go first!” the veteran group likely exclaimed. “Let us just load up (drummer) John Sparrow’s charcoal grill. Yeah, he’s got a solo on it. Oh, and this conch shell. And this xylophone. And don’t forget this huge f***ing saxophone.”
That’s right. The saxophone is alarmingly large. It is possible to find out what the instrument is actually called, but the most apt description is a “huge f***ing saxophone.”
And that’s how the Violent Femmes have always rolled. Their impact has been a cultural slow burn, seeping into our awareness over a tumultuous 30-year career.
Their defining hit, “Blister in the Sun” (the first track on their debut album), was released in 1983. A decade later, it was catapulted into the social consciousness by a featured moment on MTV’s My So-Called Life. However, the song’s acceptance should not detract from the fact that it is a cunning lyrical labyrinth. When decoded, it leaves the listener with a deeper understanding of the practice of public masturbation.
This detail is not lost on the rebellious members of the Violent Femmes, who played the track early in their set, inspiring thunderous applause and enthusiastic dancing from the mostly middle-aged crowd.
“Blister in the Sun” is indicative of the entire attitude of the band. Their to-hell-with-it attitude and catchy, singsong, three-chord acoustic punk rock are as recognizable as they are unparalleled.
Gordon Gano’s iconic, nasally vocal assault is a strange, disarming presentation for his satirical, sly lyrical acrobatics. He is the only vocalist on the planet who can get away with pairing subversive, anti-establishment songs like “Gimme the Car” and “Black Girls” with apolitical anthems like “I’m Nothing” and “Old Mother Regan,” then switch gears to traditional Christian works like “Jesus Walking on the Water” without seeming either entirely sincere or disrespectful.
Bassist Brian Ritchie should likewise be counted as one of the driving forces in his craft. He is the musical muscle to back up Gano’s attack, the enforcer whose rhythm and energy and precision couple with his lead singer’s wiry, outsider’s wit to create the unique foundation of the band. You can pick the sound of his E string flapping against the fretboard of his oversized acoustic bass from a lineup of imitators on jams like “Country Death Song” or “Add It Up.”
All of these tracks appeared in the set. Noticeably absent, however, was material off their new album, Hotel Last Resort, which was released only a month ago and features a title-track akin to Bob Dylan’s Academy Award Winning (that’s right, Bob Dylan won an Oscar) “Things Have Changed.” Gano’s lyrics are in top form, bumping political references about Czech leader Vaclav Havel up against multiple lines about “chortling.”
With the addition of the youthful enthusiasm of Sparrow’s locomotive fan-brush drumming, the Violent Femmes have spent the better part of the last decade blowing headliners off the stage. In 2015, after rebounding from a dispute over licensing rights to “Blister in the Sun,” the band reentered the touring world with a stint in support of the Barenaked Ladies. It was almost embarrassing how much better they were as the opening act.
Likewise, in 2017 the Femmes propped up a co-headlining tour with Echo and the Bunnymen, a band with its own impressive catalog but who didn’t quite seem ready for the oppressive American summer heat. While the Milwaukee trio were reclaiming their rightful place among the best entertainers working in music, Bunnymen lead singer Ian McCulloch was sweating through his black suit and struggling to breathe.
During this performance, however, Ben Folds proved he is much more suited to the task of following Gano and company.
As the stage was reset, the capacity crowd was able to explore the Surly grounds, a venue which offers a mini-festival atmosphere nestled just off transit routes in the middle of the Twin Cities’ crosstown commute. The experience comes complete with food trucks, sloping hills for shorter fans, and plenty of easily accessible brews and bathrooms.
During the hiatus, the mood shifted and the audience calmed into serene anticipation as the sun dipped into the horizon, making way for Folds’ grinning confidence and a more professional stage setup and lighting display. The difference between the two performances was literally day and night. Folds’ smooth professionalism was the lullaby after the Violent Femmes’ daytime tantrum.
His voice is sure, his confidence locked in place after two decades of making his own way in the recording industry. He is a colossal talent behind the piano, deftly navigating his own complex arrangements while engaging the audience and leading his band.
“Minneapolis/St. Paul!” he exclaimed during his first break, before the kitschy hit, “Moscow Mitch.” “You guys have always been so nice to me.”
And no wonder. Folds’ presentation is the personification of the Twin Cities’ aesthetic. He is talented, charming, prepared, well-groomed, a little bit safe, and full of verve and inspiration backed by the motivation to bring his artistic whims to fruition.
Folds has spun his success and recognition into a bevy of artistic output. He is an accomplished photographer, has recorded an album with novelist Nick Hornby, and he recently released his memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, from which he provided a reading during his Surly pre-show meet-and-greet. He has also delved further into classical composition and performance and earned new online fans with his 10-minute, live composition.
Though his early hits are still in his set, he has stepped away from his own rebellious roots and an attitude where he lyrically lashed out at his bullies and detractors by telling them to “kiss my ass.” That said, Folds still revels in running the line between art, satire, and comedy, but succeeds in a more accessible way than the Violent Femmes. One of his and Hornby’s co-creations takes quotes directly from the son-in-law of a Republican vice presidential candidate’s MySpace page, to hilarious effect, and couples it with note-filled piano wizardry.
The result from his performance is a crowd of satisfied fans who were out for a night of abandon and escapism. Folds’ musical textures pay respects to the history of his craft while keeping respectable, professional musicianship relevant and enjoyable and without commenting too directly on a touchy social and political climate.