May 13, 2023
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On May 10, 2023, the Rady Shell hosted a performance by the Violent Femmes and the San Diego Symphony. A great blend of classic and contemporary, with the iconic sound of the Violent Femmes with some orchestral arrangements from the San Diego Symphony.
It’s been 40 years since the Violent Femmes released their self-titled debut album. Now, they’re on tour commemorating this major milestone and playing the entirety of the album and a few other songs from their catalog.
And while many of the tracks from the album may have been written and recorded when the lead singer, Gordon Gano was a teenager, his voice sounds nearly the same. It’s hard to tell five decades have passed—since people popped in their Violent Femmes cassettes for the first time—just from listening to him.
At first glance a concert for a punk-folk band at the Shell with a full orchestra might seem like a jarring proposition, but they made it work. The collaboration was seamless, and it was clear that both the Violent Femmes and the San Diego Symphony were fully invested in making this a memorable performance.
A contributing factor was the energy and enthusiasm the conductor, Christopher Dragon, brought to the performance. But the crowd, which was a diverse mix of old and new fans, also played a role. Everyone in attendance was all eager to see the Wisconsin band take the stage.
As promised, they played their debut album. But they did it out of sync and mixed it in with some of their other hits. They opened with “Add It Up.” As the evening went on, they quite literally went down the list of greatest hits, including “All I Want,” “Color Me Once,” “Look Like That,” and “American Music” to name a few.
Of course, they also played “Gone Daddy Gone,” with its characteristic and unmistakable xylophone solos, which had the crowd up on their feet. The orchestra’s contribution to this song added another welcome dimension to it. Right around this point in the evening was also when one of the most calm and slow stage rushings took place. By the end of the concert a small portion of the audience had gathered near the front of the stage and jamming along.
My lone complaint was the duration of the concert, it’s one of the shortest performances I’ve attended. A scheduled start of 7:30 p.m. and no intermissions, stagehands were packing up equipment by 8:45p.m. This would’ve been great if I was in grade school—like the two young men in the seats in-front of me—and my bedtime was 9 p.m.
But before they walked off stage for good, they played “Blister in the Sun,” which delighted everyone and the entire audience erupted in a sing-along. They closed the night with “Good Feeling,” which made full use of the Symphony’s string section and sent us home with a good feeling.
As the evening wrapped up, it was clear that everyone in attendance had witnessed something truly special. The Violent Femmes and the San Diego Symphony had created a performance that was greater than the sum of its parts. It didn’t matter if you were born too soon or born too late, we all walked out liking American music, baby.