“It’s blind love,” says Laura Jane Grace. “I love blind love!” She is addressing the audience at the Concord Theater in Chicago on Saturday, September 30th, reciprocating the adoration from a packed house of all-age revelers. They absolutely love her, and she loves them right back. “I like being reckless and just jumping in,” she says of love. “Being like ‘fuck it, let’s get an apartment together’…let’s do something stupid!”
In picking songs for the set list, the Against Me! frontwoman/founder is neither reckless nor stupid, taking fans on a near-ninety minute punk rock odyssey through the band’s entire career with a crowd packed in front of the stage like compressed human headcheese. Ripping into the opening riff of True Trans Soul Rebel, the electric buzz circulating through the audience after stellar performances by The Dirty Nils and Bleached explodes into a ball of energy aimed directly at the stage.
“All dressed up and nowhere to go!” The first line of a song about refusing to hide oneself behind culturally-accepted norms, and “making yourself up as you go along.” Hundreds of voices swell in perfect unison to accompany Grace’s cutting vocals; the vibrant singer belting her lyrics to a capacity crowd that knows every word.
A similarly poignant message ripples through much of the material from the band’s two most recent albums, 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and last year’s Shape Shift With Me, both of which feature prominently in tonight’s set. It is a message that strongly resonates with a large and growing fan base, among whom a burgeoning community of LGBTQ brothers and sisters has become inextricably intertwined since Grace’s coming out as a transgender woman in 2012.
The crowd, in many ways, is a physical representation of the cusp of human evolution. Granted, it’s 99% white folks (so very very white), but gender normative roles have gone out the window, and people are embracing the amazing sexual diversity among those gathered here tonight. People are ‘out and proud’ with who they truly are; the vibe is completely comfortable and accepting. Nobody is judging; no one is being hassled over which restroom they use. There are no labels. There is no single ‘category’ into which anyone fits, unless one chooses to categorize oneself. All too often we get caught up in what ‘group’ we belong to, what ‘team’ we play for, what ‘brand’ represents us, without ever embracing our true selves (or even attempting to discover what that may be or what it might look like). Instead, far too much life force and energy are expended on trying to fit into some pre-apportioned societal role because of what ‘others’ think. Then here comes a band like Against Me!, an artist like Laura Jane Grace, who gives people the courage to grab hold of their truth, to come out and be who and what they are on the inside. It is beautiful, and truly something to behold.
“Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” Grace sings on I Was a Teenage Anarchist, one of only two songs from 2010’s White Crosses to make the cut tonight. On the other, a drum-driven track called Bamboo Bones, we are told to “push back, push back, push back, with every word and every breath.” Grace explains beforehand, “You see a brick wall, just fucking punch right through,” she says. “Fucking smash right through. You gotta have the self-reliance, the wherewithal to do that on your own. But also it’s important to recognize the people you got standing beside you, who are there for you when you need help.” A song about resilience, optimism, and fighting back, echoes in the soaring chorus: “What God doesn’t give to you, you’ve got to go and get for yourself.”
Moving backward and forward through time via song choices from each of their seven studio albums, the band keeps up a relentless pace from start to finish. Pro Vision L-3, the first ‘new’ song of the night, preludes back-to-back selections from 2005’s Searching for a Former Clarity; the righteous, angry, politicized rant of From Her Lips to God’s Ears (who else could rhyme “North Korea” with “Condoleezza” and make it rock?) and the biting satire of Miami, a place where “the water’s fucking poison,” and if you’re unlucky, you can be “swept away in a hurricane” or “buried in the rubble of an earthquake.” Considering the current state of things, both songs retain an unnerving relevance to the world we see today, as does the title of Sink, Florida, Sink, which shows up as an encore toward night’s end.
We dash back to 2007’s New Wave for the title track, followed by Up the Cuts (“Are you restless like me?”), and back further still for Jordan’s First Choice and Walking is Still Honest from the band’s 2002 debut Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose, which they plan on playing in its entirety on the final stop of the tour.
“This is a song about sobering up,” Grace says about Haunting, Haunted, Haunts. “And realizing all the things that are fucked up in your head, and all the things slowing you down.” Delicate, Petite, and Other Things I’ll Never Be “is a song about shame and judgment.” In the modern world, people are not inclined to hold the mirror up to themselves instead of so quickly and callously judging others. “What the fuck is so great about you?” asks the singer. “How the fuck to you see yourself?” She then demands an answer with the song’s refrain, “I wanna know how you see you!”
A well-received cover of the Replacements’ Androgynous fits the mood perfectly, taking us right into Unconditional Love (“Even if your love was unconditional, it still wouldn’t be enough to save me,”) and Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious (“We rock because it’s us against them”) which further illustrates the divided state of our nation: “People are either consumers or revolutionaries.”
333 is the last new song of the night, before Dead Friend, “a song about desperately missing a friend you know you’re never gonna see again,” asks with the lyrics, “How could I not have guessed she’d fall in love with the first boy she kissed in a casket?”
The titular track from Transgender Dysphoria Blues is “for anyone who feels uncomfortable in their own skin…who feels alienated and isolated everywhere they go. I feel that way all the fucking time.” Grace intimates to the cheering crowd, “I wanna send all my love out to you, and feel you send all your love back to me. And just for a moment, just for the length of this song, I want all that bullshit outside there to disappear.” She points to the back wall of the venue, referencing the outside world, where ignorance, hate, and bigotry abound, and chaos swirls about our heads every day. One might imagine the catharsis of Laura Jane’s songwriting process as she shouts the lyrics: “You want them to notice the ragged ends of your summer dress. You want them to see you like they see every other girl. They just see a faggot. They hold their breath not to catch the sick.”
The rumbling drums of The Ocean, with its danceable reggaeton-esque beat, lay a foundation for a confessional, as Grace sings “If I could’ve chosen, I would’ve been born a woman. My mother once told me she would’ve named me Laura.” This on a song released five full years before she came out to the world.
Reinventing Axl Rose reminds us “that we all are stronger than everything they taught us that we should fear,” while the scathing Black Me Out (“I wanna piss on the walls of your house!”) feels like Grace’s way of saying she’s had enough of the bullshit. “I don’t wanna see the world that way anymore. I don’t wanna feel that weak and insecure. As if you were my fucking pimp. As if I was your fucking whore.”
A solemn-yet-totally-catchy lamentation on the hopelessness of addiction, the band’s breakout earworm single Thrash Unreal caps off the first set, with the crowd chanting along. “She keeps on working for that minimum, as if a high school education gave you any other option.”
No sooner has the band left the stage than a living, undulating forest of clapping hands entices them to return. With a crowd like this, at a show like this, there’s just no way there won’t be an encore. The band does not disappoint.
A single spotlight shines on center stage, illuminating a lovely acoustic LJG solo rendition of Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton by John Darnell of the Mountain Goats, with its unforgettable callback, “Hail Satan,” to which the crowd gleefully throws its collective devil horns in the air. Ms. Grace remains alone onstage for the beautifully haunting ballad Two Coffins (“In the dark of our graves, our bodies will decay. I wish you never change.”), during which she shares with us an unavoidable truth about the mystery of life: “One day soon there’ll be nothing left of you and me.” All too true, LJG. All too true.
Three of the evening’s last four songs are taken from Against Me!’s legendary first album, ostensibly to keep the tunes fresh for when the whole record will be played start-to-finish in about a month’s time. The jiggy Irish folk vibe of Pints of Guinness Make You Strong powerfully admits, “If I would have known just how things would have ended up, I just would have let myself die,” while the protest anthem Baby I’m an Anarchist challenges people to have the courage of their convictions: “What I’m trying to say is that I burn down buildings while you sit on a shelf inside of them.” The imagery is absolutely perfect for the times in which we live.
Finally, reluctantly, we are left with the rallying cry of We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules) — “I cannot help but hold onto a handful of times when what was spoken was a revolution in itself, and what we were doing was the only thing that mattered.” As someone who came of age in the nihilistic Nineties, this reviewer can attest to experiencing that same visceral feeling once upon a time. Somehow, a strong dose of Against Me! has brought it all back.
Afterward, when the band is gone, the lights have come up, and the vape smoke begins to dissipate among the dispersing crowd, we find ourselves spilling out into these dirty Chicago streets. A twenty-something couple huddles against a storefront window, contemplating options for transportation. “I wonder if we can hail a cab,” says the guy. “Maybe,” says his date. “But can we…Hail Satan?” A smile crosses my face as I answer. “Yes, little girl. Yes you can”
Photos © 2017 by: Roman Sobus