Having seen Against Me! something like a dozen times over the last ten years, I’ve grown accustomed to what to expect from their live shows. Little, if any, downtime between songs. Not a lot of talking. Impressive segues from one song into another. Energetic crowd. And a setlist that didn’t ignore the old stuff together, but focused on the newer songs.
Last night, Against Me! brought all of that, but it wasn’t those things that made it a great show this time around. This time, they were intense. Against Me! brought a level of intensity few bands could ever even hope to bring for just a single song. They kept it up for around 45 minutes.
A large part of this new intensity comes from new(ish) drummer Jay Weinberg—yes, son of Max. Jay isn’t just a guy behind a set of drums on the back of the stage, he is a driving piece of the band. He is loud and hard-hitting. I was always a fan of Warren, I even doubted that they could find a solid replacement for him when he left, but Jay brings something entirely new to the band. It’s hard to exactly describe it, it’s a level of intensity, but it goes beyond that. He’s a drummer who isn’t just playing music he loves, he’s playing with his favorite band. He screams along to all of the lyrics. He can’t even stay seated half the time. It’s as if the excitement of the music is too much for him to handle. Against Me! never lacked energy before, but the additional energy that Jay brings is simply unreal.
As much as Jay adds to Against Me!’s live show, the biggest change is Laura Jane Grace. This is Against Me!’s first tour with Laura living and playing as a woman. No one would fault her for appearing uncomfortable on stage or not performing to the standards and expectations she had set for herself when she was still living as a man. Any reasonable and open-minded fan would be more than understanding of what she’s going through, even though they themselves are not truly be able to comprehend what the life of a transgender person is like. But if that was Laura last night, this review probably wouldn’t need to exist. Maybe a simple supportive tweet would have sufficed.
The reality is that Laura walked out on stage proud of who she was and free from having to hold anything back. She owned it. And she looked great.
The crowd at the show was a weird mix being that Against Me! is providing tour support for The Cult, a band with a mostly older fan base that has little overlap with Against Me!’s. As such, this was the first time a lot of the people in the crowd had ever seen Laura and I would be surprised if any of them really even knew that she lived as Tom Gabel up until just recently. I could imagine many of them looking at the stage and thinking “what IS that? Is that a man or a woman?”
That didn’t seem to matter though. If Laura cared, you couldn’t tell. She was a force to be reckoned with. Any fan who has seen Against Me! before should have been able to pick up on the fact that her mannerisms and stage presence weren’t much different than they used to be before she started her transition. She still moved similarly on stage…but more. Looking back, her mannerisms on stage feel like hints of the woman she really is trying to come out, but being held back. There’s no holding back anymore. She’s free and it’s very obvious. To simplify something very complex, she looked comfortable in her own skin. A brand new skin that she loves and is just starting to explore. She looked happy.
It’s difficult to put the effect that Laura’s new comfort had into words because you have to see it to truly understand. This comfort brings Against Me! to an entirely new level that very few artists could ever achieve. The emotion is real. The words are real. The sincerity is unlike anything else.
Against Me!’s setlist stayed true to what they’ve always done, it focused on the newer stuff and didn’t get bogged down trying to play more than a handful of old songs. They opened with two brand new songs, which is something few bands can pull off. Both were great. Through the course of the rest of the set, they squeezed in a couple other new songs as well. Again, both great. Each new song was a reminder that this band has never and will never stop trying to move forward. And when Laura Jane Grace wants to deal with something, she’ll say it. She won’t mince words or hold back.
While some fans may have been disappointed in the band’s last release, White Crosses, Against Me!’s performance last night should serve, not just as a statement, but an exclamation that this band one of the absolute best bands making music today. Their sincerity, energy, and raw emotion may not be equaled by any other artist out there.