by MIKE CHAIKEN
From my seat in the floor section at the Mohegan Sun Arena on July 28, a wave of nostalgia swept over me.
All of a sudden, I was brought back to the old Muni Café on Main Street in Hartford.
It was the late 1980s, late 1990s, and the eatery-by-day and music venue at night, was one of the few spots in Hartford that showcased local music.
It was an interesting time in music. Bands were more interested in following their muses than writing hit songs. If a track gained attention on college radio (there weren’t even alternative commercial stations at the time), the bands considered that icing on the cake.
The idea was to express themselves and to offer a respite from the cubicle at work.
Bands often tossed everything but the kitchen sink in their musical approach.
And the Muni was one of those places where you could see bands make the leap from their garage to a paying audience.
The Violent Femmes and Ben Folds were two artists that arose in that era.
Although both had some notable songs (“Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone} for the Violent Femmes and “Brick” and “Battle of Who Could Care Less” for Ben Folds), both also went for a more gestalt approach for their artistry. They clearly wanted everything to matter, not just a few hummable tidbits.
On stage at the Mohegan, both the Violent Femmes and Ben Fold looked different than today’s pop acts.
Instead of backup singers and a stack of synthesizers, with plenty of empty floor space for shake-your-booty dancers, there was an eclectic mixture of musical “instruments.”
First of all, for the Violent Femmes, a humongous contrabass sax stood to stage right of Blaise Garda. Drummer John Sparrow stood beside a Weber grill, which served as one piece of his minimalist arsenal of percussion. Bassist Brian Ritchie was armed with an acoustic bass that would not have looked out of place with a mariachi band. Gordon Gano looked the most “normal” strumming his electric guitar. But even he stepped out of the norm by whipping out a fiddle for a bluegrass song.
Ben Folds looked like an alternative Elton John or Billy Joel behind his Yamaha grand piano. But his back-up band used a cello. Bass lines were carried by an electronic contraption played like a harmonic. And the drum set was devoid of the requisite rock band bass drum.
This was all part of this creative philosophy of seeing what works and going with it– conventions be damned.
Both acts also arose at a time where there was this cultish fan adoration. For fans, one of the attractions of both the Violent Femmes and Ben Folds is that they were not commercial juggernauts. To be a fan was to be part of an exclusive club.
It was like that at the old Muni. Many of those who attended the gigs were regulars who showed up week after week, night after night. It was a clubhouse where we were all members of something special.
Although both bands have a good deal of mileage, they also are still percolating artistically.
The Violent Femmes just released a new album, “Hotel Last Resort. They even opened up their set with the opening track of that new album, “Another Chorus.”
Three songs in Ben Folds took the unusual approach of performing a jam he had just written before the show, which he dedicated to the Mohegan Sun itself.
Both acts were part of a time where tent pole artists who kept record companies afloat weren’t the norm. It was a time when musicians were allowed to veer to the right or to the left as they saw fit for the sake of “art.”
The origins of The Violent Femmes and Ben Folds were not necessarily a time when you would invoke the adage, “They don’t make music like that anymore.” But they definitely came a time where shows like the July 28 one at Mohegan are key to reminding us of another time when music still had a chance to be “art.”
I give the Violent Femmes and Ben Folds at the Mohegan Sun Arena on July 28 3 ½ out of 4 stars.
PHOTOS by MIKE CHAIKEN