Against Me! Fizgeralds March 16, 2014
Formula is often the death knell of bands that stick too close to a template that wears thin as a soggy cracker after a decade. Luckily, Against Me!, who helped ignite the world's interest in Gainesville, Fla., has run the gamut from loose-knit, post-Fugazi hoarse punk singalongs to tight-as-hell musical populism contextualized by abundant tattoos, smart-ass stabs at left-wing clichés and conformity, evocative and explorative narratives, as well as hook-infested, fiery, TNT-powered pop.
Whereas mainstream punk bands that sign to major labels often end up over-cooked, bland, banal, faceless and embalmed, Against Me! stuck to their guns and abandoned ship after hitting No. 34 on the Billboard charts and releasing two well-honed records that did seem a bit comfy with slick studio production, thanks to uber-alternative rocker/producer Butch Vig. Once free, they jump-started their own studio, Elkton, and DIY label, Total Treble Music, while witnessing the transformation of former sandpaper-voiced singer Tom Gabel into the alluring and potent Laura Jane Grace.
The band's emotive new album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, now featuring a rhythm section retrofitted by former members of Rocket from the Crypt (Herculean drummer Atom Willard) and The (International) Noise Conspiracy (fleet-footed bassist Inge Johansson), is not only a conceptual wakeup call to issues of gender fluidity in the modern era, it also unleashes new and revitalized music territories germane to the bold subject matter of a singer attempting to un-hitch, and live untrammeled by a confusing past as she reshapes an identity in the mottled glare of the spotlight.
Sunday night's set list decisively conjured up many of the album's momentous cuts: the marshaled Johnny Cash-gone-punk skitter rhythm of the title track; big, fuzzed-out anthemic melodies ("True Trans Soul Rebel," not too far removed from their earlier tune "Americans Abroad"); slow howls underscoring the need to cut loose the pain and creeps of a former life ("Black Me Out"); soaring, early Cheap Trick-style rock-and-roll walls of sound ("Unconditional Love"), which nearly propelled the audience to bounce the floor to pieces; acerbic back-to-basic punk evocations of outsiderness ("Drinking With the Jocks"); cryptic and thrusting prog-metal ("Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ"); and a Late Show With David Letterman-tested tune exploring the desire to live bravely with bite, honesty, openness, candidness and purpose ("Fuckmylife666").
Plus, Against Me! unleashed a barrage of prehistoric tunes too, like their early, Crime EP-culled "I Still Love You Julie"; mid-2000s rowdy sea chanty/Southern blues-bellowing "Miami"; and audience-stirring, combustible versions of "Don't Lose Touch" and "Cliché Guevara." The band deftly balanced these morsels with the unexpectedly loose-limbed, pounding and slow-gyrating ballad "The Ocean" as well as the pulse-spiking life-gone-wrong anthem "Thrash Unreal."
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Armed with megatons of desire to please both loyal-until-the-end fans and soon-to-be sweat-buried newcomers, Against Me! reigned with an explosive tour de force. With vigor and romp, they catalyzed the tumultuous, convulsive, song-stirred crowd as if hosting an all-ages hardcore melee. Indeed, the roiling, ecstatic audience prompted Grace to utter "Fuck yeah, Houston," and sent the band's slim redhead roadie-cum-bouncer stage-diving into the writhing heaps of bodies as one local borrowed the microphone in a mighty chorus of Walt Whitman-esque "yawp over the rooftops of the world" proportions.
The band planted no stage banners, expressed no fuss over the fans tumbling onto the claustrophobic stage, and expressed no feigned sincerity, easily revealed by their network of broad smiles and banter. In all, the night felt like a private homecoming unleashing years of pent-up, riotous passion evoked by music as both pure adrenalized pleasure and a barometer of emboldened conscience in an era when youth have been too often stereotyped as overly intoxicated by a digital world. During this blistering night, they mostly dropped the phones in favor of their feral sense of the body electric.
Personal Bias: I saw Against Me! open for Retisonic at a squat in Hamburg, Germany, looking over the grimy seaport in 2004. As foreign fans squished bodies and spat lyrics, I knew Against Me! embodied a generational turning of the punk-music tide. I still believe it.
The Crowd: Largely multicultural twentysomethings drinking canned beer, thrusting skinny arms into the fetid air, warping the floor with their stomps, and taking the last bite out of a feverish weekend.
Overheard In the Crowd: Downstairs, before people disappeared into the howling wind with perspiring faces, one fan stood among friends, declaring, "What struck me was how much they care about fans..." as a female comrade added, "They seemed so happy this time."
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