The Violent Femmes And X Aren't Going Gentle Into That Good Night Or Anywhere Else

Like a blister in the son, the Violent Femmes go on.
Like a blister in the son, the Violent Femmes go on. Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Violent Femmes, X
House of Blues
May 10, 2019

On paper, this was an odd pairing. There’s nothing that immediately comes to mind linking punk legends X and venerable alt rockers Violent Femmes aside from their cache with Generation X and their bracing, occasionally acerbic songs about life in the Reagan Era.

X rose howling from pre-apocalypse Los Angeles, while the Femmes hailed from the relatively genteel confines of Milwaukee. Both bands are distinctive in their own way: X’s fusion of punk, rockabilly, and country set them apart from other bands of their ilk, and the Femmes are best remembered for songs that were the musical equivalent of a post-breakup middle finger. Aside from the odd Rhino Records '80s compilation, you wouldn't necessarily associate one with the other.

And then you see them live, and it all clicks into place: both bands play the xylophone* in their live sets. Truly, an unshakeable bond. Oh also, both are still pretty relevant, but for different reasons.

X really needs no introduction, but here’s one anyway: their debut album (1980’s Los Angeles) is still regarded as one of the finest albums of the 20th century. And then they went on to release (I’d argue) four more albums that were just/almost as good. Reuniting the original lineup of Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D.J. Bonebrake, the group tore into their set energetically enough to betray their (and our) advanced years.

Zoom, who left the band for over a decade in 1986, was in fine form, propelling songs like “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” (that Chuck Berry-esque riff never disappoints) and “In the House That I Call Home” with fresh urgency belied by his relaxed onstage posture. Sitting on a stool with a beatific grin (when not rising for saxophone duty), he reminded me of Bruce Davison in the X-Men movie, only (probably) less genocidal.

Cervenka was resplendent in her cowboy boots, sundress, and black matador jacket while Doe was reliable as ever in jeans and (until the final songs) a leather jacket over his button-down with bolo tie. The pair divorced long ago, but if they still aren't the coolest front duo in rock, I don't know who is.

click to enlarge
They got the band back together: Doe, Cervenka, Zoom, and Bonebrake.
Photo by Violeta Alvarez
And that was only half the show! It seems like just yesterday that Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie was suing singer/guitarist Gordon Gano for selling the rights to “Blister in the Sun” to Wendy’s (it was actually 2007). The two have apparently reconciled, so I'll refrain from further editorializing. For now. Playing with new drummer “Captain” John Sparrow and their usual accompanyists, the Horns of Dilemma, the trio played to an appreciative, vocal crowd.

[I don’t know if he calls himself “Captain.” It was a cheap joke and I apologize.]

If I'm being honest, I was a little surprised at the size of the turnout for the Femmes. Like X, their heyday is well behind them, yet the House of Blues was about as full as I've ever seen it. Credit a rain-free Friday night, and also an impassioned and enduring following for songs like "Prove My Love"

Because let's be honest; Friday's Femmes crowd was there for a handful of tunes. "Blister in the Sun" and "Kiss Off" made relatively early appearances, and were two of the only tunes to shut the notoriously chatty HOB crowd up. "Add It Up" and "Gone Daddy Gone" (xylophone) were later arrivals.

Clad in uniformly black/gray togs, the Femmes set walked a fine line between sarcasm and disdain. Gano was clearly enjoying himself, though, so the act wasn't entirely convincing. They also dropped a few cuts ("NOT OK," "Another Chorus") from July's upcoming Hotel Last Resort. Clearly, the Femmes are sticking around for a while.

Maybe they can get a Burger King commercial next.

*D.J. Bonebrake actually plays the vibraphone ("I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts"), and he's really good at it

Personal Bias: I listened to the Femmes in high school. I listen to X to this day.

The Crowd: So many bowling shirts.

Overheard In The Crowd: "I'm saving this spot for my daughter."

Random Notebook Dump: "Gano's voice reminds me of a guy trying to return a mostly consumed taco platter for a refund."
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar