“So, here we are in a bowling alley,” said Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace to a small, but tightly-packed crowd at the Brooklyn Bowl in Las Vegas. It was the last night of their 2014 summer tour, and the four musicians had an air of exhaustion over them, as one could expect from any band finishing up such an engagement. Despite the weariness evidenced in their occasional breaks, one would not guess from the musical delivery that this band was anything but enthused.
The entire band, including longtime guitarist James Bowman, and relatively new additions Atom Willard and Inge Johansson on drums and bass respectively, filled the thirty-foot stage with enough energy, movement, and intention that not an inch of space felt empty or awkward. Johansson bopped all over as he strummed along, engaging the audience directly during the intro to “Don’t Lose Touch,” while Bowman’s comparatively stationary demeanor balanced out with his slick guitar tones and powerful backing vocals.
Grace in particular owned the stage, swaggering about to lead audience chants and singalongs, reaching out to grab the hands of crowdsurfers, and other times simply losing herself in the beat of a heavy instrumental section.
Laura Jane Grace is a sharp contrast to the person I saw leading Against Me! in October 2008 at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey. Then known as Tom Gabel, the singer publicly came out as transgendered in May, 2012.
The Against Me! that appeared on stage that night in 2008 paralleled the 2014 lineup in energy, intensity, and tight musicianship, but featured a frontman who remained still and rigid during the entire set. From memory, the only time Gabel spoke to the audience in their headlining gig that night was before their last song to thank the opening bands for playing and the fans for singing along.
It’s hard to believe that these are the same people, separated by five years’ time and a monumental revelation about her identity, but it makes perfect sense when looking at the context of Against Me!’s career. Long before Grace made public her gender dysphoria, she wrote about transformations of identity, and reconciling who you were with who you are. Her catalog features clues that she struggled with gender identity long before she went public with it, (“The Ocean”, “Searching for a Former Clarity”) but transitions of all kinds define this band.
Take “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” from 2010’s White Crosses, an anthem depicting the singer’s acceptance that the anarchism of her youth was not sustainable, and just as much of a fad as anything else. Yet, “Was” continues to appear next to “Am” on set lists in 2014. “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” seems to present the story from the other point of view, being the anarchist left behind, as Grace once was.
2007’s New Wave points to the band’s major label debut in lyrics like, “We can control the context of presentation,” (“New Wave”) and yearning for a revolution in mainstream music, “Have I heard this song before? / Did this already happen?” (“Up the Cuts”)
Before the major label leap, Searching for a Former Clarity points to ennui, “You’re not saying anything we haven’t heard before” and deteriorating from sickness, “Your gut’s expanding, your hairline’s receding. / The sores are opening and the cancer’s spreading.” (“Don’t Lose Touch” and “Miami” respectively.)
On …As the Eternal Cowboy, Grace preaches self-criticism about complacency and punk trends (“Cliché Guevara”), and learning that music can be its own reward in the title track of Reinventing Axl Rose.
Any artist with significant output and longevity is bound to have shifting beliefs, so inconsistencies in views may exist in their discography, but the fact that Against Me! continues to celebrate these contradictions alongside each other suggests that Grace is not interested in pretending her past never happened. Instead, the theme is seeing how one’s identity transforms as new beliefs and experiences interweave with the old.
At the Brooklyn Bowl, the band put their embrace of past, present, and future out front and center: opening number “FuckMyLife666” from Transgender Dysphoria Blues transitioned without a breath to “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong,” a song that dates back to one of Against Me!’s earliest releases.
One can reasonably make the observation that thirty-three-year-old Laura Jane Grace standing on stage in Las Vegas in 2014 is a very different person than twenty-eight-year-old Tom Gabel in New Jersey in 2008, who herself was an evolution of the eighteen-year-old who started playing music in basements in Gainesville, Florida. Physically, emotionally, and politically, the artist has evolved drastically and her music has reflected it. Change creates chaos, and with Against Me! and Grace, the chaos binds it all together.