Violent Femmes Tour Diary The Final Edition by Brian Ritchie - Noise11.com
Photo from KSPRZK

Violent Femmes Tour Diary The Final Edition by Brian Ritchie

by Paul Cashmere on October 29, 2021

in News

For the past two months across September and October Violent Femmes co-founder and bass player Brian Ritchie has taken us on tour across North America with the Femmes.

Brian’s tour diary has been more than a rock read. He has taken us behind the scenes of a Violent Femmes tour, into the towns and shown us the diverse cultures that exist across the United States.

The tour end in Minneapolis on 23 October. That luckily coincided with The Rolling Stones coming to town and Brian went from on stage to in an audience.

Here is Brian Ritchie’s Violent Femmes 40th Anniversary Tour Diary #7, the final instalment:

In this final Violent Femmes 40th Anniversary Tour Diary all will be revealed. Did the tour reach a peaceful conclusion or was it derailed by pestilence and plague? Have the band members maintained (relative) sanity or plummeted into an abyss of despair and self-doubt? What do they eat? The last episode of the VF blog had us finishing up the California swing. But first we take a break in Redding Ca. which has the most amazing bridge imaginable designed by Calatrava. It looks like a giant harp.

Sundial Bridge. Photo Taliban Todd Piotrowski

Sundial Bridge. Photo: Taliban Todd Piotrowski

We are heading into the home stretch of the tour and one of the most scenic regions of the USA, the Pacific Northwest. We will start with one of my dramatic and luminous culinary pics. We watched our football team The Green Bay Packers on the tour bus. This is the sport Australians call Gridiron, which is like calling golf Course or calling tennis Court. Gridiron is the playing field not the sport, knuckleheads! It is mandatory to eat bratwurst at such times.

Bratwurst grilled outside the tour bus. Photo Brian Ritchie

Bratwurst grilled outside the tour bus. Photo: Brian Ritchie

Australian readers will also be fascinated to see that people in Bend, Oregon surf on the river, a hitherto un-encountered phenomenon. It is mind-blowing and bizarre. The concert itself was an equally chaotic affair with much moshing and festivity.

River Surfing. Photo: Dr. Varuni Kulasekera

River Surfing. Photo: Dr. Varuni Kulasekera

American citizens must have a legal residence in the States even if they live in Australia. Ours is Seattle. This is where we vote, and have driver’s licenses. Seattle is the biggest gig of the tour. We are playing in the stadium of the Seahawks football team, and the visiting team locker room was our dressing room.

Photo Dr. Varuni Kulasekera

Photo: Dr. Varuni Kulasekera

In Seattle, seafood is the go. We indulged in coho salmon, since for political and environmental reasons we avoid toxic farmed salmon in Tasmania. We get our fill of wild salmon in the USA. But the star of our seafood extravaganza is this dude, which is called a geoduck. That rhymes with viaduct.

Geoduck. Photo Brian Ritchie

Geoduck. Photo: Brian Ritchie

Playing in the home of the Seattle Seahawks. Photo KSPRZK

Playing in the home of the Seattle Seahawks. Photo: KSPRZK

Next stop on the tour is picturesque Eugene, Oregon. Our accomodation sends lead singer Gordon Gano into a reverie.

Photo by Brian Ritchie

Photo: Brian Ritchie

Photo from KSPRZK

Photo: KSPRZK

The band is always tight but after many weeks on the road a form of telepathy develops and all the twists and turns of the improvisations become mutual, the hits and stops become more staccato, the spaces between notes become voids. In typical VF fashion we do our longest tour in decades during a pandemic, but the musical dividends are big.

Cuthbert Amphitheater Eugene. Photo KSPRZK

Cuthbert Amphitheater Eugene. Photo: KSPRZK

We drive overnight to Boise, Idaho, give driver Smooth a brief rest and then on to Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is the home of The Church of Latter Day Saints AKA Mormons and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Religion is problematic but sometimes yields upsides. In this case the Tabernacle houses the world’s biggest pipe organ, some mean acoustics and a daily organ concert. We always attend when we are in town. Gordon and I love the light show, which simply consists of a different coloured monochromatic wash for each piece. How they determine that one song is purple and another orange is a mystery but it is beautiful.

Mormon Tabernacle Organ and light show. Photo Brian Ritchie

Mormon Tabernacle Organ and light show. Photo: Brian Ritchie

Because of the religious background of Salt Lake City it has always been a wild punk rock city. Because people need to let off steam. This dichotomy is also reflected in Gordon’s background and lyrical concerns, thus the Femmes are a core band for Salt Lake City, and the show goes off.

Next stop Denver. Now I will discuss something that Australian readers would not know, if they have not visited the States in recent years. America is Pot Central. The presence of marijuana is ubiquitous. People smoke it in the lobby of the hotels, on the street, at the gigs, in restaurants, in the lift. I am no longer surprised to encounter it anywhere. However, Denver takes this to a new high, so to speak. Driving around the city with the windows open, you can smell burning weed, and when it’s not burning, the aroma of potent skunk weed growing and being stored emanates from greenhouses and warehouses. It’s quite remarkable. The entire city smells like Snoop Lion’s drool.

Pot-infused audience in Denver. Photo KSPRZK

Pot-infused audience in Denver. Photo: KSPRZK

Now I hop on a flight to the band’s hometown, Milwaukee. Hometown shows always carry extra weight and stress, but that is somewhat minimised by the inability to host guests backstage. We play at the beautiful Miller High Life Theater. The audience (which spans 3 or 4 generations) is finely attuned to VF after 40 years of indoctrination, and sing along even with the most obscure material. But first my culinary adventure upon arrival in Milwaukee is to go to the nearest restaurant in search of exquisite delicacies:

Real Chili. Photo Brian Ritchie

Real Chili. Photo: Brian Ritchie

Milwaukee BR, Sparrow and KSPRZK. Photo Karen Hayden Jest

Milwaukee BR, Sparrow and KSPRZK. Photo: Karen Hayden Jest

We are relieved to get Milwaukee out of the way. Initially, and rightfully, this was supposed to be the last gig on the tour but fate conspired to add another date, Minneapolis. We don’t even get to spend the night in Milwaukee, but do another overnighter to our even colder Midwestern neighbour. By this time we are running mainly on fumes but we can also air it out and the show and tour conclude joyfully, albeit a bit exhausted.

Blaise and Gordon, Minneapolis Armory. Photo KSPRZK

Blaise and Gordon, Minneapolis Armory. Photo: KSPRZK

Sparrow and BR Armory. Photo KSPRZK

Sparrow and BR Armory. Photo: KSPRZK

We have not been going out to public entertainment or sporting events in order not to jeopardise the tour, but the tour is over and one of our favourite bands is playing in Minneapolis so we decide to check them out.

Stones. Photo Brian Ritchie

Stones. Photo: Brian Ritchie

Mick and Keith. Photo Brian Ritchie

Mick and Keith. Photo: Brian Ritchie

Another overnighter back to Milwaukee and the tour is truly over.

Unloading the gear into VF’s storage unit in Milwaukee with Taliban Todd and KSPRZK. Photo Meg Vartanian

Unloading the gear into VF’s storage unit in Milwaukee with Taliban Todd and KSPRZK. Photo: Meg Vartanian

Epilogue and Semi-Philosophical Musings:

Kafkaesque Tour Routing. Start in Milwaukee, go to St. Louis and then follow from there!

Kafkaesque Tour Routing. Start in Milwaukee, go to St. Louis and then follow from there!

Violent Femmes decided to embark upon a massive tour in the middle of a pandemic. This could be bravery or stupidity. I won’t speak for the others, but I had my reasons. Initially I was safe in the bosom of Tasmania or the womb of the Nanny State of Australia, where there was hardly any Covid and the government was handing out $$$$$$$ like it was candy at a kiddy birthday party. I planned to wait out Covid, but then learned that the wait might take me well past retirement age or even my lifetime, because this shit ain’t going away. I readjusted my mentality and decided that since a Covid-free world is unlikely, and I did not want to prematurely give up being an international touring musician, it was time to take a calculated risk and get back into the world.

There are some advantages to being an established musician. I received support from the Australian Government through Australia Council from the Sounds Australia Export Stimulus Package. This is a great initiative to get viable Aussie musicians back on the road internationally. Here in the States, many or most of the venues we are touring received funding from the US Government to stay afloat during Covid, underwriting losses and enabling the venues to take risks, such as booking and paying us. Things would not be nearly as hospitable for up-and-coming musicians and bands.

The face of touring has changed, probably permanently. Some of the changes might even be considered positive. But mostly it’s an inconvenience, buzz-kill and onerous for most of the touring and organisational staff. We shared the tour with three other bands. Thick, a fun all-female punk trio from Brooklyn. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes from San Francisco, an absurdist punk cover band. And Flogging Molly, Irish-American punk extravaganza. All these bands poured their hearts and souls into their performances. In the case of Flogging Molly and Me First, they also faced challenges on the tour. Normally bands on a package tour socialise, party together, hang out on each other’s busses, jam together on stage, sit in with each other, dine together, and etc. None of that was able to happen because of the Covid protocols we all agreed to. This is counterintuitive to say the least. Not exactly the freewheeling spirit of rock and roll. As a result, I would hesitate to go out on a multi-band package tour again in the future, simply because of the fun sacrifice required. Better to tour with a smaller bubble and be able to have camaraderie.

Despite that sacrifice, VF and our insular staff managed to have fun in our limited way. The tour was worth doing and it was interesting to be at the forefront of a new style of touring. I hope it doesn’t last in this form, but from a sociological and anthropological point of view it warranted observation.

Our relationship with the fans was affected. Normally I sign thousands of autographs on a tour of this length. I was ambushed by one fan and signed an autograph, other than that, there was very little interaction. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, I would not be married if VF started in Covid, because I met my wife Varuni when she was escorted backstage by a VF crew member to get her CD autographed back in 1994. Cupid’s arrow can not strike from quarantine. Makes me feel great concern for bands who are just starting out. How can they build the social and professional network required for growth if they can’t interact with the fans? Similarly our media, record company, and other professional engagements were entirely curtailed. Everything was done by email, phone, Zoom, and other proxy methods. This is unsustainable in the long term.

During Covid in Australia, starting in lockdown, I did a series of over 500 online Facebook Live Corona Concerts, to alleviate my boredom, express musical ideas to an audience (albeit virtual) and act as an example to other musicians that nothing has to stop the rock. Once the obstacle was removed and I was able to tour Stateside, I decided to temporarily shift that energy to a tour blog, because I would be in a position to observe and do things most Aussie musos can’t. In this ongoing blog I have illustrated the professional side of my trip to the USA. A lot of prominent Australian musicians have reached out to me after reading it with a sense of envy that we were able to tour-anywhere-while they are locked down back in AU. I left out things that happened out here on the road, either because it’s personal, not to compromise privacy of my colleagues, or just because it was not music related. What I did not try to obscure is the repetition, tedium, limitations, food trauma, and other mundanities of being on the road anytime, but particularly in Covid.

Australia is perhaps the most restrictive and cautious country in the world regarding Covid. This has gutted music, entertainment and the arts. Here I sit at the computer after doing 30 gigs, driving more than 15,000 miles, performing for more than 100,000 people, and no Covid. All I did to protect myself was get vaccinated, wear a mask, avoid crowds (but still interacting with too many people), doing numerous Covid tests (both rapid and PCR) and avoiding known redneck anti-vax knoblets. This is where Australia is going to have to land if it wants to get our business and culture back on track. We will be returning to AU soon, landing in Sydney on November 13th. Whether or when we go to Tasmania after that is a mystery since TAS will not let people in who have not quarantined for 14 days prior to arrival, but New South Wales stops quarantining people on November 1st. This is an insoluble quandary using reason or logic, but hopefully there is an incoherent methodology which will land us back in TAS.

Hundreds of people have written to me thanking me for sharing the tour life with them. (Edit: Huh?) Some have suggested that Violent Femmes 40th Anniversary Tour Diary should win a Pulitzer Prize. (Edit: Not) My next concert experience after the Stones will be Bob Dylan, who is starting out his tour in Milwaukee. We are partying like it’s 1965. Fascinating to see that decrepi-dudes like Dylan and Keith/Ron are joining VF in spearheading the return to live music. Thanks for reading these missives from the front line. Thanks to Noise 11 for hosting. Hope to see you on the road in AU, USA (again) or some other earthly venue.

©2021 Brian Ritchie

Violent Femmes North American tour dates

For Brian Ritchie’s previous tour diaries look no further than here:

Brian Ritchie Violent Femmes tour diary #1

Brian Ritchie Violent Femmes tour diary #2

Brian Ritchie Violent Femmes tour diary #3

Brian Ritchie Violent Femmes tour diary #4

Brian Ritchie Violent Femmes tour diary #5

Brian Ritchie Violent Femmes tour diary #6
Brian Ritchie Violent Femmes tour diary the final instalment #7

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