The first time I saw Violent Femmes, they were opening for the Grateful Dead in 1991 at Buckeye Lake. The latest time I saw Violent Femmes, they were collaborating with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on June 22, 2024, at the Columbus Commons.

Both shows were sold-out. Both took place in a big field. Both epitomized incongruity, but worked splendidly. The first made me a Femmes fan; the latest reminded me of how fortuitous the first had been.

“You must be very proud of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra,” bassist Brian Ritchie said from the stage after “American Music,” a song that had found guitarist Gordon Gano ditching his regular instrument for a banjo and leading a Banjo power! chant before the CSO woodwinds positively swung behind the four Femmes.

“They are kicking ass right here in the public square,” Ritchie continued. “Not every orchestra can do that.”

“American Music” was one of 16 tracks the band got to over the course of its high-energy, 70 minute set, which took place in 90-degrees-after-dark heat that had the folks who attended CSO’s Picnic with the Pops – where carry-in booze and grub is encouraged  – dancing to such numbers as “Add it Up” and “Color Me Once” as the orchestra, formal in white, accompanied the Femmes, casual in black, on songs about vaginal and oral sex – albeit in more explicit terms that rhymed with duck and dead, respectively. 

Such clashes of culture notwithstanding, the orchestra was fully integrated with the twitchy punkabilly stylings of Gano, Ritchie, drummer John Sparrow on brushed drums and percussion that included a Weber grill and Blaise Garza on a variety of woodwinds that were often inaudible in the swirl of sound. “All I Want” was the peak of the partnership with conductor Stuart Chafetz leading a cacophonous arrangement that sounded like it’d always been a part of the song – to call it perfect is not to exaggerate.

Ritchie played vibes on “Gone Daddy Gone” and the Femmes played on their own on such tracks as “Kiss Off” and “Please Do Not Go” as Chafetz looked on with satisfaction and his players watched in a combination of amazement and horror before the collaborative encore of “Blister in the Sun” and “Good Feeling.” The horrified members were thus probably grateful for their opportunity to play Rossini’s “Overture to L’Italiana in Algeri” and Smetana’s “Three Dances from the Bartered Bride” during their brief opening set.

More delightful incongruity in an evening that thrived on such counterintuitive musical genius.