Against Me! has a somewhat embattled history. The group started its career as an anarcho-punk band, releasing Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose in 2002 and gaining the respect of punk rock kids in the band's hometown of Gainesville, Florida, and beyond. But then the band signed to Fat Mike's Fat Wreck Chords, and later to Warner Brothers' Sire Records, and released a series of albums that slowly shrugged off the fiery ideology of the band's beginnings. The process is best demonstrated by "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," a soaring, anthemic piece of pop-punk with the lyrics "I was a teenage anarchist / the revolution was a lie" with a video in which the establishment, in the form of police officers, literally beats the shit out of the band's fleeing lead singer. Subtle imagery, this was not.
That said, Against Me! never really shed its political passion. When lead sing Tom Gabel came out as transgender and began referring to herself as Laura Jane Grace in 2012, the band was in the process of recording a new album, and reportedly, the direction of the album shifted and became more personal. The album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, released earlier this year, is full of deeply personal moments, and is surely responsible for spreading awareness about the transgender experience.
None of this was apparent at the Nile Theater in Mesa last night. Had you know nothing about Grace's transition, you just would have seen a punk band play a lightning-charged set to a passionate group of several hundred die-hard fans. Grace's gender dysphoria was present only in her lyrics. As New Times has written previously, Transgender Dysphoria Blues (TGB) is one of the most important albums released in recent years, but if there were any fans that hopped on the trans-rights bandwagon, their voices were drowned out by longtime Against Me! fans, who sang louder to the choruses of songs like "Don't Lose Touch" than they did to "Unconditional Love."
The night started out with the hilariously named "Fuckmylife666," the sixth track of TGB, then going into "New Wave," "Cliché Guevara" and "Walking Is Still Honest." The band then played "Unconditional Love," which Grace introduced by saying "This song is about self-love," which distills punk rock romance into the sentiment, "You make me want to smoke cigarettes / you make me want to drink whiskey."
Kids were jumping climbing on stage, rocking out with the band for a few songs, then diving back into the crowd. The crowd became more emboldened with each person who climbed on stage, eventually singing choruses into the mics. Grace acted graciously towards most, humoring her fans and giving them their five seconds of fame. There were no security guards to stop them, placing the burden of policing the stage on the band's overworked guitar tech. This guy deserves a medal. Some Justin Beiber-looking kid climbed onto the stage and rocked out for just a few seconds too long and embraced Grace in what looked to be a well-meaning hug. The guitar tech hopped on stage from the side, grabbed the kid by the back of the shirt and unceremoniously tossed him back into the crowd. It was glorious.
During "Thrash Unreal," one of the band's most popular songs, the mics cut out (whether that was from some idiot crowdsurfer tripping over a cable, we'll never know). Grace stopped singing with a bewildered look on her face, but it didn't matter. The crowd sang along to every single word. A huge smile slowly crept across Grace's face as she heard her lyrics and melodies sang back to her, and she stepped back towards the drummer and strummed her guitar while the crowd filled in for her.
The crowd also spontaneously broke out into "Sink, Florida, Sink" during the break between encore and set. The encore ended with "We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules)," and as many as five people climbed on stage at once and crowded the microphones, forcing Grace to slide over to the bassist's mic to sing the song's final bars.
Fans loved Against Me!'s show at the Nile Theater. Gender identity and politics took a backseat to music, and Grace looked happier than ever. It was a promising and a bit surreal to watch fans go so crazy about a band fronted by a transgender woman. The future looks bright.
Last night: Against Me! at Nile Theater in Mesa
The crowd: Very diverse, all ages and genders represented equally.
Personal bias: I will cop to being one of those bandwagon fans who started paying close attention once Transgender Dysphoria Blues came out.
Random Notebook Dump: Were people really that surprised when Against Me! started making poppier songs? The songs on Reinventing Axl Rose mostly hang out on the same four chords as most pop tunes.
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