By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Jun 27, 2013 at 1:16 AM Photography: David Bernacchi

I remember that moment, the first time that I saw the Violent Femmes at the Marcus Amphitheater. Gordon Gano on lead guitar and vocals, Brian Ritchie on bass and replacement drummer Guy Hoffman, lighting up the stage after Duran Duran opened.

It was 12:01 a.m. on May 30, 1995 at New Rock Fest, and we begged a radio station for free tickets. The band was on the downward slide of an amazing arc, unable to recreate the magic of "Why Do Birds Sing" without original drummer Victor DeLorenzo. We weren’t sure they even wanted to.

We knew it was imperfect, even back then, but we had literally just turned 21 (me, two days earlier; Eron during "Add It Up). If this was the moment where we could freeze time and strand ourselves for eternity, Eron and I decided we’d be OK with that. Delighted, even.

Just over 18 years later, so much has changed, but a little has stayed the same. I still feel that way about Femmes’ concerts.

To put it another way, there’s no place I’d rather be than at a Violent Femmes show.

It’s a feeling that goes back to the first time I saw the the trio, with the original lineup, at Great Woods in Boston, in 1991. It’s a feeling that’s waxed and waned a little when the band was just going through the motions. Great shows like that Halloween acoustic set at The Pabst that became "Viva Wisconsin," and some tense Summerfest shows at the Miller Oasis when my friend Victor rejoined the band.

Eron and I always felt like any of those shows could be the last, and when the band fell part between lawsuits and irreconcilable differences in 2009, we wondered if they’d ever be back. Fortunately, this seminal Milwaukee band still has a little gas left in the tank. There’s a lot of emotion tied in this reunion, but for 90 minutes, I didn’t over think it, I just let myself get swept away.

The Violent Femmes’ story isn’t quite over yet. Its been a few years since the Femmes played together, but Coachella and the Bottle Rocket Festival brought them back, meaning that this Summerfest show was just their fourth time performing together since they broke up.

And what better way than to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of their eponymous debut album than to play it in its entirety, in order. This album means so much for so many people. We all remember the first time we heard "Blister in the Sun," (sixth grade for me) and "Add It Up," but given that this record didn’t get a whole lot of airplay beyond one or two songs, it’s amazing that even casual fans knew all of these tunes. "Good Feeling" still brings tears to my eyes when played live. I know I’m not alone.

The Femmes played this masterpiece of debut album beautifully. The magic is still there. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

Now, I’ve spoken to Vic about this a lot over the years, and later, I’ll write more in detail about this reunion. Time has not healed all wounds. We didn’t expect this band to kiss and make up, to create new music. All three members are in different places in their lives. It’s easy to feel like the Femmes were just getting back together to cash a paycheck.

But let’s not go there. Not tonight.

Instead, let’s talk about Ritchie’s hauntingly spectacular bass work. Or Victor’s living drums, though he still stands in front of a mini kit, using brushes and no bass. Or Gano’s piercing voice that transcended his minimalist guitar solos. John Sparrow joined the band on stage, playing a box of some sort. I found it a little weird.

And, it wasn’t perfect. The first few notes of "Blister In The Sun" were rough, but the guys quickly got it together. With no stage decoration, the Femmes just kept getting better and better, and former BoDeans frontman Sam Llanas joined them onstage for "Good Feeling."

Even with a little rust, this was one of the best Femmes shows I’ve ever seen. Maybe the best. Gano played violin extremely well as they reached into a few deep cuts like "Jesus Walking On The Water" and "Country Death Song." They made amends with one single encore song, a far more spirited version of "Blister In The Sun." And then it was over, just like that.

Do you like American music? I do, especially when it’s Milwaukee’s best musical export of all time.

Opening for the Femmes were the Avett Brothers, a group I’ve long rolled my eyes at. I do like folk and bluegrass, but nouveau folk and bluegrass, not so much. But I went in with as open of a mind as possible. And they were pretty good.

The Avett Brothers came out in an unfamiliar position: opening for anyone else. However, this didn't slow them down at all. They ran the gamut of their repertoire, ranging from straight up bluegrass all the way to their punk roots. They saved the best for particularly raucous renditions of their radio hits "Kick Drum Heart" and "Slight Figure of Speech."

As always, they delivered the energy they have built a cult following on. In this instance, it was the perfect warm up for the hometown crowd excited to see their favorite hometown band.

Set list:

  1. Blister in the Sun
  2. Kiss Off
  3. Please Do Not Go
  4. Add It Up
  5. Confessions
  6. Prove My Love
  7. Promise
  8. To the Kill
  9. Gone Daddy Gone
  10. Good Feeling
  11. Jesus Walking On The Water
  12. Country Death Song
  13. Out The Window
  14. Black Girls
  15. Gimme The Car
  16. American Music
  17. Blister In The Sun

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.