Violent Femmes Rocked the Tobin Center. Echo & the Bunnymen Struggled to Connect.

click to enlarge A view from the cheap seats. Violent Femmes tear up the Tobin Center. - MIKE KNOOP
Mike Knoop
A view from the cheap seats. Violent Femmes tear up the Tobin Center.
Kudos to the Tobin Center for tucking the seats away for Thursday night’s Violent Femmes/Echo & the Bunnymen show and turning the floor level into a giant general admission playground. It was as if the Paper Tiger had moved downtown for the night, but with easier parking.

The Violent Femmes were up first, parading through the crowd to the stage like a ramshackle four-piece marching band.  Aside from an odd band name and their 80’s heyday, the Violent Femmes don’t have much in common with their co-headliner. The Milwaukee trio won hearts and minds with ragged folk punk that sounded like summer camp singalongs turned terribly, beautifully confessional.

Two original Femmes remain, bassist Brian Ritchie and singer/guitarist/songwriter Gordon Gano, but drummer John Sparrow, often working a single snare, fit in like he had been their drummer for two decades instead of two years. Blaise Garza rounded out the lineup, playing saxophones and providing extra honking and skronking as needed.

The Femmes opened with “I Hate the TV,” an extra song on their 1993 compilation Add It Up.Then, just 15 minutes into their set, and – HOLY CRAP – “Blister in the Sun!”  The floor space that, minutes before, had been loosely filled was suddenly jam-packed as folks rushed in to hear (and sing along with) the quintessential Violent Femmes song. Then – boom – the band slid right into “Kiss Off,” replete with a rip-snorting acoustic bass solo from Ritchie. The crowd was now sweaty putty in the band’s hands.

Gano switched from guitar to banjo for the harrowing “Country Death Song,” and as Ritchie quipped afterward, “Where there’s a banjo, there’s storytelling.” He then complimented San Antonio on being the only place besides Milwaukee that gets the polka, as the band launched into the jaunty “I Can Do Anything.”

While half of the Femmes’ set came from their first three albums, they also included recent songs, greatest hits one-offs, a soundtrack song and even a spirited rendition of “San Antonio Rose,” with Gano now on fiddle. They dipped back into their first album to close out the night with a riotous rendition of “Add It Up.”

The entire time, the Femmes looked like they were having a blast, and they brought the crowd along with them.

Sadly, that did not hold true for Echo & the Bunnymen.

Hitting their stride in the first half of the 80’s, the attractively moody English foursome played shimmering postpunk pop with vaguely spooky lyrics about killing moons and headless horses, somewhere between Cure lite and a darker U2.

As this year’s model walked onstage to Gregorian chants and dry ice, dark blue and purple lights pulsed overhead. Little did we know that it would rarely get any brighter.

They opened with a slinky version of “Rescue,” then slid into “Villiers Terrace,” appending it with snatches of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” and Bowie’s “Jean Genie.” The band sounded OK but when the hell were we going to see them? I get mood lighting, but this was downright sepulchral.

Singer Ian McCulloch and guitarist Will Sergeant, of the original lineup, are the only two official Bunnymen, while a four-piece touring band fills out the remaining slots. The backing band barely registered as more than shadows as they hovered in the gloom behind their bosses.

The band struggled to connect with the audience. While McCulloch’s voice was in good form, no one was backing him up on vocals, so soaring anthems like “Bring on the Dancing Horses” or “The Cutter” sounded hollow. The pounding “All My Colours” and chiming “Seven Seas” fared better.

At times, the only light came from smartphones as various audience members checked their email or arranged for grocery pickup or whatever.  When the band played “Lips like Sugar,” against a relatively bright crimson backdrop, a sea of smartphones suddenly swiveled up from hip position as several dozen amateur videographers strove to make a memory.

The band encored with their signature tune, “The Killing Moon,” then exited the stage and much of the audience exited the Tobin. The band came back for a final encore to a half-empty house with “Ocean Rain.” And it was beautiful! McCulloch sang for the angels as the band swelled behind him, building to a cathartic crescendo. Where had this band been for the past hour?

Any band is going to have an off show now and then, but who would have guessed that the one that had a xylophone/guitar duel was going to win the night?

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