For Ravinia debut, Violent Femmes enlist Chicago Philharmonic to enhance the early hits

Classical ensemble will add ‘incredible bombast’ to tracks from the rockers’ first album, bassist says.

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The Violent Femmes — Blaise Garza (from left), Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie and John Sparrow — standing for a photo in front of the Hotel Wisconsin entrance.

The Violent Femmes — Blaise Garza (from left), Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie and John Sparrow — are set to perform at Ravinia with the Chicago Philharmonic.

Courtesy of Milwaukee PBS

The Violent Femmes began in the Milwaukee rock underground more than 40 years ago and burst forth to become a prominent part of the alt-rock scene well into the ‘90s.

Given the Femmes’ cult classic stature (and the relatively short drive down I-94), it’s a wonder why the band hasn’t played Ravinia — until now. On June 21, the quartet will make its debut at the summertime staple.

It’s a “bucket list” item, says bassist Brian Ritchie, and the group has something special planned to mark the occasion: Playing its 1983 self-titled debut album in full with the Chicago Philharmonic.

While it may seem impossible to think of those early hits like “Blister in the Sun,” “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Add It Up” getting the symphonic treatment, Ritchie says, “it works very well.” Part of the reason is because the bandmates’ hallmark has been playing acoustically — their goal was to always “out-rock every other acoustic act” — which provides space for a full orchestra.


When: 8 p.m. June 21

Where: Ravinia, 201 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park

Tickets: $48-$95


“With a loud rock band, even a drum set would be too much for an orchestra. So, we play at minimal volume and that allows the ensemble to fill in the sound with all of its coloration,” says Ritchie.

And really, if you listen to the first album, it already hints at its symphonic potential. For example, “Good Feeling” has overdubbed violin and piano.

“So it’s basically expanding on some of those concepts,” he says, adding that “Blister in the Sun” is a “cute redo” while other songs like “Confessions” and “Add It Up” have “incredible bombast coming from the orchestra and the arrangements, which will catch the listener by surprise.”

Years ago, Ritchie relocated to Australia, where he first commissioned the symphonic treatment from Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra tuba player Tim Jones (who sometimes plays live with the Femmes); the rock-orchestral suite has since been performed with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles.

Even though Ritchie lives across the world, he still gets back to the Midwest “about once a year.” And, during some of those visits, he’s been a patron of Ravinia shows including jazz greats Cecil Taylor and Roscoe Mitchell.

Ravinia also has a long relationship with the Chicago Philharmonic going back 30-plus years, making this new collaboration a natural fit. The ensemble will provide 60 musicians, says Chicago Philharmonic executive director Terell Johnson, including “flutes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, a large percussion session with a timpanist, a large violin section and violas, cellos and double bass.”

The Femmes’ performance will be the first of a few thrilling partnerships for the Philharmonic this summer, also including joining modern jazz chanteuse Laufey at Lollapalooza Aug. 2.

“To my knowledge it’s the first time it’s ever been done. There’s been no orchestra at all at Lollapalooza,” adds Johnson.

Opportunities like these are really why the Philharmonic was created in the first place in 1989, he says.

“The founding members were all principal musicians in the Lyric Opera, and created the ensemble for the purpose of being able to program music and get out of the pit. … It’s a big part of our identity as an organization — being collaborative and supporting other artists within our classical music canon but also outside our traditional circle.”

The Philharmonic also has collaborated with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, even “Weird Al” Yankovic, among others; this summer also includes the world premiere of “The Voice of Whitney: A Symphonic Celebration” at Ravinia on Aug. 30, in coordination with Whitney Houston’s estate.

And Johnson has set up meetings with some of the other artist teams at Lollapalooza for potential future projects. It all dovetails with a recent audience demographic survey that found that one of the Philharmonic’s largest audiences is millennials and Gen Z. The creative partnerships “tie in audiences in an impactful way,” he says.

That’s an important point for Ritchie, too. “We’ve seen these songs have a lasting ability to migrate across generations … In some ways maybe they all can relate to the lyrics because they address a lot of universal topics like loneliness and anxiety,” he says, recalling that singer-lyricist Gordon Gano was only in his teens when he first wrote the tracks.

Playing their radio hits in this new symphonic format not only gives the Femmes much-needed variety but also harkens back to the very roots of the band that took an oath of non-conformity.

“We were always committed to playing the acoustic instruments even though, at the time, the commercial landscape was heavy with keyboard-oriented bands, techno pop music and hair metal, things we didn’t really relate to,” says Ritchie. The band’s demo — which can be heard in all its glory in a special box set reissue of the “Violent Femmes” album — was rejected by around 75 labels who wanted the band to redo the songs “like Flock of Seagulls or something,” he adds.

“We refused to do that.” Instead, the band financed the production themselves, got Slash Records to release it and then got a head start after famously busking outside a Milwaukee venue as The Pretenders were getting ready for a show and invited the Femmes to open.

Playing all those early tracks now, in this new format, brings Ritchie back but also provides a way to look forward; the musician suggests that recordings of the symphonic performances may be coming soon.

“When it’s just nostalgia and a band going through the motions, it doesn’t have any life, that’s boring,” he says. “But frankly our music feels like it was far ahead of the times. … Very few people have followed up on what we are doing, so it still sounds somewhat fresh.”

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