It was a surreal scene at MTelus. Standing in front of me, Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World chugged beer while showing off their air guitar skills. A beautiful Viking with braided hair adjusted her horned helmet and took a selfie. Vampires and gunshot victims waited in line for their ration of blood, er, booze. What was this freak show? Halloween in Montreal, of course! And alt-rock fans put on their funny, sexy, and demonic costumes for a packed and rowdy show featuring the legendary Violent Femmes.
Your Smith started the show. The young singer-songwriter from Minneapolis played solo acoustic guitar and tried to sing over the non-stop crowd chatter. She kept her cool, but the loud drunks were very distracting. This was unfortunate because she had a good stage presence and, from what I could hear, a fine selection of contemporary folk covers and original tunes.
How can you tell it’s election season in the U.S.? Because most artists from south of the border rant about politics and, according to Your Smith, the “fucked up shit” happening in their country right now. Following the required political interlude, the singer covered Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.” American’s are an angry lot these days.
The Halloween headliners were none other than Milwaukee’s finest folk-punks Violent Femmes. Their self-titled 1983 debut album was one of the first punk albums I really appreciated, and one of the first times I heard someone say “fuck” in a song—an important moment in my developing interest in underground rebel music. The explosive teen angst anthem in question, “Add It Up,” is their best song, what I consider an indisputable fact that was confirmed by the concert.
Although the angry punks have matured since then, lead singer Gordon Gano’s distinctive voice still pierced heads like a power drill and reached the very back of the room with ear-splitting power. They played a number of short, fast paced tracks from the timeless debut album, including “Gone Daddy Gone,” “Kiss Off,” and fan-favorite “Blister in the Sun.” The blend of aggressive punk and more technical folk tracks demonstrated the range and incredible musical knowledge of the band.
Actually, they could have played the entire debut album and everyone would have been happy. But Violent Femmes have gone beyond the minimal rock of the album, and the set reflected their eclectic style and prolific output. The stage was full of instruments, both conventional and wacky. A selection of electric and acoustic guitars, a banjo, two saxophones—one a giant saxophone bigger than any I’ve seen—a xylophone, drums that included a barbecue as one of the pieces, and a huge gong were all at the disposal of the four-piece band. Bass player and original member Brian Ritchie played a conch, along with an inspired xylophone solo on “Gone Daddy Gone.”
Saxophonist Blaise Garza, part of the ever-changing horn section Horns of Dilemma, rocked the massive sax and brought the concert to another level of insanity. This instrument emits a sound like nothing else—a deep, bellowing rumble that shook my drink and left the audience wondering what the hell just happened.
During the encore, Gano asked the costumed freaks in the crowd, “Is it Halloween, or is that something you guys do here?” Then, winning hearts with the drunk French crowd, he played fiddle and sang a traditional French folk song with the lyrics “dance avec moi ce soir.” It was a touching end to a Halloween full of spooky and unexpected surprises.
Written by Rob Coles
Photography by Eric Brisson Photography
*edited by Kate Erickson