Friday night, Against Me! slammed back into town for the final show of its tour for the second year in a row, playing Culture Room -- same as last time.
Before the concert, Radio-Active Records hosted a meet-and-greet with the band. Attendance was surprisingly light, though I'd have to agree with the theory that fans skipped it because of chilly weather. Radio-Active's Mikey Ramirez warned that they'd be capping the crowd if it got crazy, which meant a line to get in should have been expected. South Floridians are a warm people, and being outside when it's 50 degrees doesn't work with our constitutions, apparently.
Laura Jane Grace, James Bowman, Atom Willard, and Inge Johansson smiled, laughed and chatted while signing stuff and taking pictures. I mentioned to Grace that I hadn't seen the band live in a long, long time, probably since my college in Gainesville (which would place us at Common Grounds around 2003, not long after Reinventing Axl Rose came out).
"Oh wow," she said, "It's a totally different show."
And naturally it would be a totally different show. AM! has put out five albums since ...Axl Rose. Half the band has been swapped out in recent years, and, of course, Laura Jane Grace is now publicly her true self.
There were big lines outside Culture Room all night, and it was nearly impossible to find a corner in order to stand comfortably. Even the normally roomy patio was pretty packed, which is to say nothing of the floor in front of the stage.
When the first chords of "True Trans Soul Rebel" rang out, I was at the bar. I finally got to the back of the main room halfway through "Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious." It took that long to wade my way through people, kicking shins and spilling half a beer on several heads in the process.
There wasn't a whole lot of talking from the band through much of the first half of the set, stacking "Don't Lose Touch," "I Was a Teenage Anarchist," and "Unconditional Love" right in the middle, ostensibly a triple shot of hits. It was near masterful as AM! really got down to business.
Before "How Low," a loping Western-ish trope about trying to escape the party life, Grace mentioned when she "grew up in South Florida. We used to do a lot of acid." Introducing a song about not being able to stop the party by referring to a mindfuck of a drug in a mindfuck of a town seems appropriate.
The last three songs of the set -- "Black Me Out," "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong," and "Sink, Florida, Sink" -- brought the still tightly packed throng to its screamingest level of the night. Chants of "one more set" spread almost instantly when it was over.
Laura Jane reemerged for the four-song encore and picked up an acoustic guitar to start the Axl Rose-era classic "Baby, I'm an Anarchist," pretty clearly giving the crowd exactly what it wanted.
Ever since AM! left Fat Wreck Chords for Sire and probably including both albums that came out on Fat Wreck, the band has been subject to endless debates and taken a lot of shit for not writing songs that sound exactly like Axl Rose or are about the same things, whether it was for chasing rock stardom or abandoning its roots.
The line from "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" to "I Was a Teenage Anarchist" is short. To go from righteous youthful indignation to looking around and realizing you and everybody else is full of shit is what happens in life. That's what happens when you get older and understand more. "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" is one of the songs that made those shows in Gainesville so long ago so incredible because the fans singing and drowning out the band is why anybody does this stuff.
Grace has done a lot of solo-ish acoustic stuff in the past few years, from in-store appearances to Punk Rock Bowling to appearing on legs of HWM frontman Chuck Ragan's "Revival Tour." As intense, and clearly intensely happy now, as she is with the band, playing a guitar and screaming into a microphone by herself is more than enough. Grace counted down the chorus for the crowd to answer every line, as she has for years.
She started "Thrash Unreal" alone too, until the band came out to join her halfway through and the crowd exploded again. The band took it back down a notch on the wrenching breakup song "Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart." This is one of the songs that made people want to give up on the band. Those people are stupid.
Against Me! closed out its final show of the tour with "We Laugh at Danger (and Break All the Rules)"; band and fans sang together, literally. Grace dropped the mic down into the crowd and all the screaming voices, including hers, it was all really just one. And then she dove off the stage.
I'm sure that for Grace it feels like the band's shows now are totally different from the early days in Gainesville. But she brings the same attitude to every song she's ever written -- that's how a straight, white guy can get and experience some of the underlying messages of acceptance of a very specific song like "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" the same way he felt the words of "Black Me Out."
And looking up at the stage, singing along, there's no difference between the intense honesty of either of those songs or any of the old ones. It's a different show, sure. New members, lots more songs. But Against Me! remains Against Me!
Let's hope it decides to close out a tour here for a third year in a row in 2016, because this needs to be an annual celebration of a powerful Florida band.
Against Me! setlist
True Trans Soul Rebel
Reinventing Axl Rose
Those Anarcho Punks
Don't Lose Touch
T.S.R. (This Shit Rules)
Walking Is Still Honest
Drinking With the Jocks
Transgender Dysphoria Blues
You Look Like I Need a Drink
Black Me Out
Pints of Guinness Make You Strong
Sink, Florida, Sink
Baby, I'm an Anarchist
Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart
We Laugh at Danger (and Break All the Rules)