Against Me! at First Avenue, 4/2/14

Against Me! at First Avenue, 4/2/14
Photo by Erik Hess

Against Me!
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Conventionally structured punk anthems sometimes feel manipulative. There's a kind of shout-along chorus that tickles the underside of your brain, triggering some long ago muscle memory and launching your fist upward with a defiant pump. When a lame punk band plays this trick on you, an experience that should offer release can instead feel ritualistic, if not routine. But when a great one juices those old formal techniques with the right amount of risk and tension, then you get an experience as cathartic and joyous as Against Me!'s Wednesday night show at First Avenue.

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Slideshow: Against Me! rocks First Avenue

In sleeveless T-shirt and torn jeans, Laura Jane Grace is a gregarious if not loquacious stage presence. Against Me! fans knew Grace as Tom Gabel until 2012, when, at the age of 31, the singer and guitarist came out as a transgender woman. Grace proceeded gutsily to make her transition the focus of her new material, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which provided a half-dozen of the 22 songs the band bashed out in a little more than an hour, plenty of room for fan-favorite oldies like "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong."

From opener "Fuckmylife666" onward, Against Me! didn't offer much in the way of variety or surprise. Some choruses are bigger than others, some verses speedier, some hooks catchier, and "Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Fists" was a heavy jam. But not only is the songwriting invariably solid, but Grace invests that material with a winning empathy -- a word Kurt Cobain unfortunately made a punk-rock cliché two decades ago this weekend -- that carries the audience through the dramatic arc of each song.

Against Me! at First Avenue, 4/2/14
Against Me! at First Avenue, 4/2/14
Photos by Erik Hess

Grace has never lacked the ability to adopt an emotionally acute perspective on the lives of others: Late set show-stopper "Thrash Unreal," from 2007's New Wave, gets inside the mind of a middle-aged recovering addict with what seemed at like an uncommon level of understanding for a punk dude at the time. "No mother ever dreams that her daughter's gonna grow up to be a junkie/ No mother ever dreams that her daughter's gonna grow up to sleep alone" remains an astounding sentiment, especially when a house full of fans is singing along.


But with the new material, Grace's need to accept and reconfigure the way she see herself and understands her identity has seemingly renewed her stores of empathy. She challenges punk's misfit ethos -- what sort of outsiders are you wallet-chain boys really ready to accept? -- even as expands and renews it.

Against Me! at First Avenue, 4/2/14
Photo by Erik Hess

And when she ripped into the title track to Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Grace voiced her insecurity through bitter admissions like "You've got no cunt in your strut/ You've got no ass to shake," then purged them in the defiance of a punchy chorus, reminding us why punk anthems were structured the way they are in the first place.

Critic's bias: Corporate whore that I am, I wasn't fully on board with Against Me! until their Butch Vig-produced major label debut New Wave, but I haven't jumped ship since, and Transgender Dysphoria Blues is the year's best rock record so far.

The crowd: Date night. As many couples as you'd see at a Yo La Tengo show, though a little younger and with a higher percentage of lesbian pairs. The kind of punks who say "Excuse me" and "Sorry" when they brush past you on their way to the pit.

Overheard in the crowd: Walking along 7th Street, a woman leaving the show: "I'm so dehydrated. I need some water." A passing stranger offers her the dregs of a water bottle. The woman downs it, keeps walking, says, "I can't believe that worked. OK, let's try this: I really need some marijuana!"

Set List:
Cliché Guevara
New Wave
Walking Is Still Honest
Unconditional Love
I Still Love You Julie
True Trans Soul Rebel
Don't Lose Touch
I Was a Teenage Anarchist
Turn Those Clapping Hands into Angry Balled Fists
Pretty Girls (The Mover_
Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Americans Abroad
Dead Friend
Thrash Unreal
Black Me Out
The Ocean
Sink, Florida, Sink

Pints of Guinness Make You Strong
Drinking With the Jocks
We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules) 

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