Hallowed Ground

The year I moved to Milwaukee, I saw a young upstart punk bank on campus.  They played a bracing crossbreed of punk and folk and crazed jazz, and they included two local journalists playing typewriters in the background, as the “Typewriters of Dilemma” (their normal music augments were known as the Horns of Dilemma – in fact, they still are).

One of those Horns, Peter Balistrieri, is notable because his sax playing aggravates my good friend Mike; not because Peter played very noisy and abrasively, but because when you saw him play in a different format, he was REALLY GOOD.  It offended Mike, I guess, that Balistrieri liked to play as if he never played the instrument before.  But I digress.)

I had heard the Violent Femmes’ first album from a room mate before I moved to Milwaukee and taped it.  But at that show, they were debuting songs from their second album, songs like Country Death Song, Black Girls, and the title track from this post.

I went out and bought the new album as soon as it was available and I admit it was the last time I bought their music on vinyl…  Since then, we’ve seen them in many venues over time.  We saw them headline an all-Milwaukee show at the old Summerfest Main Stage Clamshell with Da BoDeans and the R&B Cadets.  At Shank Hall, a 300 person club.  At the Zoo for A La Carte. Playing for 20,000 fans at the Marcus Amphitheater.  They have been a long time mainstay in our musical love life.

MOAR Digression.  If you haven’t been aware, in the absence of viable income sources, musicians have been forced to allow soulless corporate savages to co-opt the cool factor and anti-establishment cred of musicians to push product.  Possible the most subversive was whichever joker managed to get Carnival Cruise Lines to pay Iggy Pop for a song about being a junkie, which was either STUPENDOUSLY well played or a complete ignorance of song lyrics.  Given what I know and hear from people singing along with songs, I suspect the latter.  IN ANY CASE, Gordon Gano let Wendy’s use “Blister In The Sun” to sell chili.  Which is, you know, pretty WTF in it’s own right, and I suspect at least half a joke.  But Brian Ritchie, being an abrasive jerk (and you KNOW I feel a kinship with him). objected to this unilateral action (although he apparently cashed the check) and the band broke up forever – or until they needed some money.

Yes, until they needed the money.  So a few years back, they did a “reunion” tour of three gigs, I think?  Milwaukee, Coachella and maybe one more.  Can’t be arsed to look it up, so in the spirit of Jonah Goldberg, maybe one of you can do my research.  We saw that show, and the incredible Avett Brothers were one of the opening acts, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Because while the Femmes were perfectly serviceable, they insisted on doing their first album ONLY their first album, all the way through- and that was it.  For their single encore song, they played one of the songs they already played.  Kind of insulting for a 20,000 person local crowd.

When this year’s  show was announced, I very nearly passed.  Wife Sublime asked, I said well we didn’t really care for the four person BNL when we saw them, and I was disgruntled about the Femmes the last time; and while I love Colin Hay I didn’t feel like dealing with the crowd and parking for the first 30 minutes of a show.

But I reconsidered.  Mainly because WS loves the Femmes so much.  And boy, am I glad I did….

First things first.  Colin Hay is a treasure.  He mostly plays solo these days, and even those early songs are better for it.  His voice is still great, and he is mordantly amusing and self-deprecating on stage and boy, his new songs are much better than the ones you know.  While he didn’t play my second-favorite song of his, he was still perfectly great.

OK, most zombies polled think the Femmes should have headlined.  But Ed Robertson from BNL was so clearly a fanboy from his introductions, that it was hard to hold a grudge.

Of course, the Femmes opened with hard core stuff, Blister In The Sun and Kiss Off.  But then they played two NEW FUCKING SONGS, and by the time they followed up with American Music, Old Mother Reagan, and Freak Magnet, I was convinced and won over (kind of would have loved to hear them dedicate Old Mother Reagan to Turdwaffle).  Also, would have LOVED to see them do “No Killing”, their protest song to Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier whose police force was killing black people long before it was fashionable:

A HUGE part of that convincement, though, was due to their new drummer Brian Viglione.  He was so dynamic, and he drove the other two Femmes (not to mention the Horns) to great heights of energy and delight; to the point that I said “I hope the older guys don’t kill themselves trying to keep up!” We were on the drummer’s side, and if you go see this tour, that is the side to be on….

Barenaked Ladies were extremely good.  We caught a brief part of their show after they kicked the coke addict out of the band, and we found it to be weak; not surprising, they had to figure out not only how to record new music but also figure out how to deal with a 20% reduction in their stage show.  But this night, they were totally on it; also maybe aided by an incoming fog bank, and a downpour that flooded the front two rows.  Many jokes about Dave Grohl were made.  They brought out Colin Hay (Ed:  I cannot tell you how awesome it is to have Colin Hay sing your song!) and the sax player from the Horns of Dilemma.

And like that show so many many years ago, I could not wait to get the latest Violent Femmes album, so I bought it at the merch table and YES it is vinyl; 180 gram colored disc and possibly the heaviest album I have ever had in my hands. And I do need to wonder where they got a cover photo from my relatives:


I was very disappointed back when the Femmes broke apart like a poorly constructed Ikea bookshelf; but it happens.  REM, MST3K, on and on; the only one of my heroes that have not done so is the Mekons, and believe me you will hear about it after the show at the Mineral Point Opera House a month from now.

But the thing is that while angst and anger expressed through guitars and destruction may be a youngster’s game (an assertion that I feel is open to debate); there are many more expressions to be made by older artists as well.  The weight of experience can be just as compelling.  The new Femmes album includes a lovely and kind of sad song called Fast Horses….

Even if the Femmes do not build on what they’ve done this year, it still shows that even total dickwads can still work together to make lovely things happen.  We all have to keep on doing what we do, and sometimes it takes a bit of humility and a bit of compromise a maybe a bit of waiting for payback.  All of that notwithstanding, that doesn’t mean you can’t still make the current thing you’re doing the best, most wildly abandoned balls-out effort you can.

It should be noted here, that the venue we saw this show, the BMO Harris stage (and when the downpour was happening and leaks were pooling on the stage, I made INCREDIBLY disparaging remarks about bankers dictating budget reductions to architects) which is on the Summerfest Grounds.  And this land was at one time home to a Nike Missile battery.  I guess someone at the Pentagon figured that we had to defend the breweries against Russian incursion BEARVERINES!  Or perhaps the Pentagon needed to spend some money on something that was useless.  Yeah that seems more likely. Remember that huge waste of money when the bridges you are driving over are crumbling, Republicans…

Anyway, when the useless and expensive and technologically incompetent missile interceptors were removed and shitcanned, there was a large amount of really nice land along a big, really nice lake that suddenly was unclaimed.  After an aborted attempt by the Traffic Engineering Idiots to follow Chicago’s lead in separating the entire city from the huge natural benefit they have, Milwaukee’s Socialist mayors made it a public trust, and it turned into one of the biggest public access to natural waterways in the entire world.  Part of which, naturally, is now the Summerfest Grounds.

So on Saturday night, we loved a band from Milwaukee, playing a song that includes the lyrics that I first heard so many many years ago:

Everyone’s trying to decide
Where to go when there’s no place to hide
I follow the bombs as they’re coming down
This must have been hallowed ground

There is an old saying about beating swords into plowshares.  In Milwaukee, we have beaten missiles into guitars.  Hallowed Ground, indeed.


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