By Allyson Bills
Silence is the strongest statement. This was the case with Gainesville, Florida’s Against Me! when they took the stage on another 100 degree plus night in the Nile Theater in Mesa, Arizona. The usually-public vocalist-guitarist, Laura Jane Grace, who came out as a transgender female in 2012, barely spoke a word during the show. Everything that she needed to say was on the black tank top-like t-shirt she was wearing with the phrase, “Gender Is Over.”
She and the rest of the band of guitarist-vocalist James Bowman, bassist Inge Johansson and drummer Atom Willard took the stage wearing all black at around 9:30 to punk-like background music. They went straight into playing “True Trans Soul Rebel,” off their current album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. This was the first album that Against Me! recorded since Grace came out. The crowd filled with a diverse sea of people of different races and genders went wild and sang every word on the opening chords. For a moment where I was standing, in order to get a presentable picture for this review, I thought I was going to get trampled by the crowd.
The mosh pit didn’t actually start until the second song of the set, “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong,” an obviously Irish-like punk tune (from it’s namesake and sound-wise) with mid-tempo drums from Willard off Reinventing Axl Rose. Now attendants are able to buy alcohol (this wasn’t the case before) at the newly remodeled Nile Theater, and I’m sure some people had some Guinness (or another drink) in order to mentally prepare for this song. "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” is always a crowd favorite every time Against Me! rolls through town. It’s a total party song.
This is the third time that I have seen Against Me! with this current lineup, and let me tell you, their chemistry has never been more sound. It’s not like they weren’t great before, but now they are on a whole other level. I think their new-found chemistry is an insurmountable part to Willard, notably from Rocket From The Crypt behind the kit. He beats the hell out of those drums, and gives the older songs more texture that was absent before. It was obvious in “Walking” from Reinventing Axl Rose, and “Cliche Guevara” and “This Shit Rules” both off As the Eternal Cowboy.
Besides Willard’s amazing drumming abilities, It’s amazing once someone is able to be who they are meant to be - like Grace - it’s evident with themselves and in the band’s performance. Acceptance of oneself was reciprocated by the audience because people of diverse backgrounds showed up to share a moment with Grace. Before Saturday night, I have never witnessed the extend of females in the audience. It was a welcome site to see the amount of other females, like myself, are into the same music.
With this being said, everyone wanted “personal time” in an otherwise public setting with Grace. Despite it being one of the most tame Against Me! shows that I have attended (noted because of the lack of stage divers), there were quite few people attempting to hug Grace while she was playing. Although Against Me! fans were well-intentioned for their love of Grace; however I found it to inappropriate and intrusive in general. Kudos to the Nile Theater’s security guards for taking these fans offstage immediately.
Grace responded in the most classy way possible: not through words, but music. She bestowed the fans with what her considered Against Me’s! new anthem song for a lack of better word, their current album’s title track, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” This song was one of more well-received songs from the crowd. Grace then dedicated a song to the parents in the audience, “Two Coffins” also from Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which she busted out her acoustic alone onstage with Willard. This song gave everyone chills, even if you weren’t a parent. There is nothing more personal than a song dedication, even if if it’s not necessarily for you, but to be a part of the community. The other intimate moments in the duration of Against Me! came songs such as the introduction from “Because of the Shame” off White Crosses with Grace alone onstage with her electric guitar, and the last song of their initial set, “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” when Grace gave the microphone to a fan so they can sing for a brief moment.
The other notable highlights of Against Me’s! included set included “FUCKMYLIFE666,” off Transgender Dysphoria Blues, another one of their newer anthems which featured excellent shredding and harmonies from both Bowman and Johansson, and “The Ocean,” off New Wave. “The Ocean” is one the prominent precursor to Grace wishing she was born a women with the lyrics of “My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.” Ironically, the largest reception from the crowd specifically didn’t come from this lyric, but from the ending line, “There is an Ocean in my soul where the waters do not curve,” which incited a gigantic sing-along from the crowd in tune with the build-up from all the instruments. Again, Willard proved why he is such an now-irreplaceable addition to this band because the drum solo again Grace’s singing was something of magic. Everyone there was feeling the feels, including myself.
However, the real highlights came during before and during the encore. In the ten-minute wait before the encore, the crowd sang the lyrics to “Sink, Florida, Sink” from As the Eternal Cowboy in unison. This was totally impromptu, and gave everyone at the show a sense of belong, which appeared to be the objective that Against Me! wanted to achieve during the show. The crowd received their wish when Against Me! played this song, along with “Americans Abroad,” which Grace and Bowman were shredding excitedly toward the end of their hour-plus set.
Birthday wishes came true for an young girl who happened to be celebrating her eighth birthday at this show. She was sitting on the corner of the right edge of the stage the entire night holding a sign stating “It’s my 8th birthday. Play ‘Wagon Wheel,’ please,” hoping that Grace would notice. To this girl’s surprise, Grace did acknowledge her sign, and came out with her acoustic guitar, sat down for a moment and serenaded the young girl her request from New Wave. The audience sang along as well, and possibly created a memorable eighth birthday for this girl.
Against Me! left it all on the stage on Saturday night, and gave the crowd the opportunity to create their own memories.