with The Sidekicks, The Shondes
The Beacham Theater, Orlando, FL • January 25, 2014
It's been a transformative year for Gainesville's Against Me. Their long time bassist, Andrew Seward, left the band and has been replaced by Inge Johansson, of The (International) Noise Conspiracy. Atom Willard -- the punk rock world's go-to drummer who most notably has been in Rocket from the Crypt, The Offspring, and Social Distortion -- is now an official member. And they just released their sixth album, the nakedly personal Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which is soaked to the core with the ache, angst, and redemption of lead singer Laura Jane Grace's transition into womanhood... Because, oh yeah, the other big change for the band is that their leader came out as being transgendered.
The most amazing thing about that bombshell is how the band's audience has NOT made it a big deal -- while simultaneously showing their support for both her, the music, and the band. The grizzly bearded fans, and skinny punks are still showing up and filling the halls. The crowd surfers are still sailing high above heads, and the Beacham Theater echoes with many hundreds of voices who know all the words to songs dating back to 2000. The difference is, there's also a new crop of listeners who suddenly have found something in common with the punk band that's always been political, but only recently become so personal. The new fans are welcomed into the fold.
Opening the show -- at a wildly early 6pm -- was The Shondes. "I don't think we've ever been on a stage so early," joked frontwoman Louisa Rachel Solomon, before delivering a fan-making set that sounded like the bastard band child of Patti Smith and Pat Benatar... but with a violin. Their set, and their sound, won me over from the first and their latest release, The Garden is destined to be a new repeat offender on my iPod.
The Sidekicks sounded like the kind of '90s music that played in the background, but never found its way onto your car stereo. The Ohio group had a lot of Weezer melodies, and some shades of Buffalo Tom, that was pleasant enough to drink beer to, but that's about all.
Looking a lot like Ellen Page, if she were about foot taller and in a band, Against Me's bold frontwoman struck the opening chord of "FuckMyLife666" whose lyrics -- like the bulk of the new album -- lay out her journey as honestly as an open diary and, despite the title, are hopeful.
No more troubled sleep / there's a brave new world that's raging inside of me
Set to the same driving melody and sung with a cleaner tone that still retains all of the bite that fans have come to know and expect from the band, these new songs may have a different message, but they can still be shouted out while pounding your fist in the air. In case there were any lingering doubts in anyone's mind about Against Me still being able to bring it, song #2 was an old reliable: "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong."
The ample 90 minute set time traveled on back through to the early days of thrashin' and bashin', on through the major label days of "New Wave" and "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," and into the present complexities of "True Trans Soul Rebel" and the rage filled power of "Black Me Out." Guitarist James Bowman is the only other original member onstage, alongside Laura Jane, and his presence and backing vocals provide further anchor into the roots of the back catalogue.
New additions can be a tricky fit, and this band, like most, has had its share of drummers over the years, but Atom Willard brings a long history of professional playing to the table -- along with a smile that never stops. Fitting in like he was always there, taut bassist Johansson is a firecracker who flings himself with abandon around and above the stage floor with the same kind of gusto former bassist Seward was known to do. Hopefully the pair will stick it out past the one tour because the foursome make a perfect set.
The early evening was put to bed with "The Ocean" and "Sink, Florida, Sink," followed by a three song encore that included the brilliant title track off Transgender Dysphoria Blues, whose lyrics are about as punk rock as you can get:
You've got no cunt in your strut / You've got no hips to shake / And you know it's obvious / But we can't choose how we're made
Even after all these years, Against Me still wow me. On a personal note, my camera's battery died two songs into their set and it was the best thing that could've happened because it freed me from the temptation of viewing much of the show through a lens to get "one more shot." This was not a concert I would have wanted to have missed a moment of.