There is nothing quite like a punk show. It’s always hot. It’s always smelly. It’s always raw. And it’s always beautiful. Punk Rock is not my favorite genre of music to listen to. Far from it. It very well may be my favorite genre of music to experience, though. Punk welcomes those when nowhere else does. A collection of misfits, junkies, rejects, and outcasts who for any number of reasons struggle to find their way, seek solace in the comfort of music that tells them it’s okay to be different. It’s cool to be weird. You’re safe here. You’re among friends.
I had long been looking forward to the world famous 9:30 club and it did not disappoint. Maybe the fact that it was Friday the 13th added an element to it, but there’s something beautiful and haunting about the room. As we waited in line for a poster that we knew would get destroyed throughout the show (it did, although we were able to salvage it)…
…. we watched as flocks of people flooded the room, most wearing all black, with clothing screaming fuck you to gender norms, and even more sporting Against Me! and LGBTQ shirts and buttons. The venue clearly knows how to hire good people, too. After the merch booth, we shuffled over to the bar where there was no one in line. The bartender was preoccupied on his phone, ignoring us for maybe 30 seconds. It honestly didn’t bother me much but he was profusely apologetic and comp’d my G&T. A small gesture of kindness that is certainly unfamiliar in most music venues.
The first band was called The Dirty Nil. A friend of ours is a big fan so I had heard the name but had never taken the time to listen. I think the two of us have slightly differing opinions on them (Sarah may have a little crush on the lead singer which probably skewed how much she enjoyed the music a bit. Sarah here: FALSE). Think The Killers meets Blink-182, with a smattering of Weezer. None of those bands I much care for, but it was a fine way to pass 45 minutes. There’s no denying that Luke Bentham, the singer and guitarist, has a fantastic voice, not to mention an ability to blow bubbles that would’ve made Susan Montgomery Williams proud. The best part, however, was watching the bass player, Ross Miller, whom Sarah described as Josh Lyman playing the bass. A little dorky but extremely excited to be there, his energy was infectious. You couldn’t help but smile watching him pump his fists and do his best David Lee Roth kicks. There’s no doubt in my mind; “this guy fucks.”
Next up was a band called Bleached, who, unfortunately for them should consider a name change now that Bleachers has blown up. In all honesty, they probably won’t have to worry about it, though. Not that they weren’t talented, but the LA-based sister duo best described as a Female Nirvana were honestly, a little boring. Nothing grabbed me. I can’t tell if they were trying too hard or not trying hard enough, but something fell flat.
Nothing, however, was going to bleach my excitement to see Laura Jane Grace and the rest of Against Me!. I first saw Against Me! open for Foo Fighters on the Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace tour circa 2008. I was in a seat, far removed from the energy of the crowd. I remember liking Against Me!, particularly a song in which they were calling out Condoleeza Rice for war crimes, which as Laura remarked here, is still highly relevant, and another called “Stop!” which unfortunately it seems is hardly played anymore. Even though I dug their set, I didn’t follow up or explore their catalog any further.
Fast forward to 2014. Hollywood Palladium. Opening for The Gaslight Anthem on their Get Hurt tour. To say they tore the roof off the historic venue would be an understatement. I was front row, eagerly anticipating Brian Fallon and Co. taking the stage, but for the hour that Against Me! performed, I was mesmerized. The way she moved. The way she commanded the room. The way she effortlessly exuded grace and angst simultaneously. The way she rocked.
In the following 3 years, I made it a point to see Laura and her phenomenal band 3 times, also attending one of her book tour events. But this show at 9:30 Club may be my favorite of all (I probably say that every time I see them). Against Me! and the crowd of punks that had come to Thrash Unreal were on another level. In our current political reality, all of us are feeling a little overwhelmed and exhausted. Those among us who were already feeling like society and the country they call home were not fully embracing their existence are feeling even more anxiety and anguish these last 11 months. For two plus hours Laura and Co. helped us push that away, inviting us to live in a world of love, hope, passion, and acceptance.
“This goes out to anyone and everyone who for whatever reason, does not feel comfortable or at home in their own body; no matter where they go, what they do, they feel isolated, alienated, and like they don’t belong. I feel that way 99% of the time during my life. The 1% of the time I do not feel that way is when I am on stage with my band, surrounded by people like you… I just want to push away, just fucking push away this flaming fucking garbage can reality we live in right now and just exist purely in the moment. Just us; just us sending love back and forth with each other…”
From the opening drums of “True Trans Soul Rebel” pounding through the speakers, Against Me! did not let up. Within minutes we were soaked with sweat, our own, Laura’s and the hundred bodies jumping around us and passing overhead. Fans who have been there since the early days in Gainesville, FL were treated to several songs from the early albums, which Laura explained was practice for The Fest (a festival in FL this weekend where Against Me! will be playing their debut album Reinventing Axl Rose in its entirety for the first time ever). At the time of this show, with only two weeks to go and not having all of the songs re-learned, Laura joked she may pull an Axl, show up 6 hours late, play one song and jump into the crowd to punch a cameraman (Side note: I saw Guns ’N’ Roses the week after Against Me! and Axl beat me there…).
While picking a highlight from a show this magical is always a challenge, the most moving moment was when she described the impact that Tom Petty had on her career. Describing it as fate, she told stories of “performing” tracks from Full Moon Fever on a tennis racket in front of her bedroom mirror as a child; her guitar choices influenced by the ones Tom was known to play. The band launched into a cover of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” which Against Me! somehow made all their own while staying true to the original.
There are copious articles and interviews talking about Laura’s transition. Not to mention her book. I encourage you to read and/or listen to everything available. The story is nothing short of remarkable and provides hope when seemingly none exists. I have nothing valuable to add to that conversation other than to state the obvious, which is that it’s inspiring. The music speaks for itself. Against Me! is the definition of a punk band. They proudly say fuck you to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the like. They promote love, hope, acceptance, and a channeling of anger that is productive and meaningful. They want to piss on the walls of your house. They want to smash the brass rings off your fat fucking fingers. But they also wish they could spend all day alone with you. I would love to spend all day with you too, Laura.