Things change – people, bands, fans, tastes. When I was waiting in line outside of Emo’s Wednesday to get into Against Me!, I kind of expected to hate this show. Throughout college Against Me! was one of my favorite bands. Really they were everything that I could have wanted in a punk rock band – talented but conflicted, hostile but welcoming, passionate but not pretentious. However, as time went on their records ditched that punk-folk raw sound that defined them and they stopped sounding like ‘one of us’. With famous (infamous?) producer Butch Vig behind them, my favorite punk band was producing singles just ready to hit terrestrial radio. I know I’m giving into cliche by saying the band was better when they seemed like my little secret, but damn it they were. I had changed. They had changed. I didn’t think Against Me! and I could get along anymore.
The audience in attendance at Emo’s was obviously enthusiastic and passionate. Considering my own feelings about the band’s most recent release and knowing that I wasn’t alone in my views I did have to wonder how many were there to see the current incarnation of the band and how many were there to try to reconnect with something they once had. One of the good things about Against Me! is they do tend to attract older, more mature fans who are less interested in proving how much more punk they are than everyone else at the show. The crowd was there to share a communal experience and sing the lyrics that have meant a lot to them over the years. And there were a lot of them there Saturday – Emo’s outside was packed.
The first band of the night didn’t match the headliner in genre as much as they did in tone and feeling. Fences is a somber, slow paced rock band that includes elements of folk and pop. Lead singer Christopher Mansfield has a firm stage presence but not in the way you expect – instead of running around on stage and telling people to get loud he let his sad, remorseful lyrics about growing up, loneliness and death suck the audience in. Mansfield looks the part of a tortured artist or just someone who hangs out outside a tattoo shop all day. Ink crawls up his arm through his low-cut v-neck shirt and up his neck. He’s an engaging figure to look at but it’s his music that will leave a lasting impression on you. Catchy synth and a solid backing band complete the band and make it a solid group through and through. Fences is a band that you haven’t heard the last of and that you don’t want to.
Then came Cheap Girls, a pop rock band from Michigan that seemed totally out of place, not only because of the venue but because of the time-period. This trio’s catchy chords and upbeat sound come straight from the early and mid-90s. If I could compare them to anything it would be Counting Crows after they abandoned any sense of somberness and hearthache and started making songs for the Shrek soundtrack. I might recommend Cheap Girls as a kind of fun throwback band that you can dance to, and they are at first, but they like to pull the same trick for every song. By the end it’s more annoying than it is endearing. If I could give Cheap Girls some credit it’s that they seemed to have won over the crowd – guys took the band’s peppy music as an opportunity to kiss their girls and people were dancing around. Maybe I’m just a horrible, bitter old man (at the ripe old age of 24) but I wanted to scream “Don’t you people realize it’s the same song over and over, and it wasn’t good to begin with!”.
After hitting weird ends of the musical spectrum with the opening two bands, the crowd was more than ready for Against Me!. In anticipation you could feel the audience shift forward and even the sight of roadies inspired applause. The band took stage and started with the epic “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.” This song is the type of folk-inspired punk rock that the people were here for and fists went in the air. It’s a sad song about a woman who lost her husband decades ago and has been consumed with grief since. And these dedicated fans sang every lyric.
As I sat there watching one of my favorite bands sing I looked for evidence that they had lost the passion of their younger days as I feared they had, but Tom Gabel’s red face and sweaty brow was evidence against it. Long-time band members James Bowman on guitar and Andrew Seward on bass matched him for every beat in high-energy performance. And as they rocked you could see little moments that served as evidence of their long-time friendship; like Gabel and Seward holding up bottles of water to the other’s mouth, or even something as small as a pat on the back. Though Jay Weinberg is new to the group it’s obvious he loves these songs and doesn’t want to do them any injustice. Sometimes I could see a grin that almost seemed to say “I can’t believe I’m up here playing with fucking Against Me!”.
As someone who actively dislikes their latest album, I was more than happy to hear one classic after another. It’s more than just the cliched “they’re old stuff was better” but these are songs that mean something to me and have connected on an emotional level. To see that they still mean something to the people who made them makes me hold on to them even harder.
The biggest surprise of the night wasn’t the early-days heavy set list, but, stripped of the slick producing and studio polish, the songs off White Crosses were engaging and inspiring as well. When Gabel sang he wanted to knock down the White Crosses (a song that he unabashadly proclaimed to be a “pro-choice song”) he convinced me of his passion. The only song that still didn’t really work for me was “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” it’s still too cheesy and the lyrics are clunky. “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” kind of sounds like a Bryan Adams lyric.
From Reinventing Axl Rose to New Wave the band took the audience on a journey through their years of releasing music. I doubt there was anyone there who didn’t have at least one moment where they heard the first chords of a song and said to themselves “yes, I fucking love this song.”
The encore featured fan favorites like “Baby I’m An Anarchist,” a tongue in cheek breakup song that makes the distinction between anarchists and spineless liberals (hint: it involves bricks and Starbucks’ windows). And “We Laugh At Danger And Break All The Rules” is still pretty much the best way to end any punk set ever. It’s a song about touring, loneliness, hardship and trying to escape where you came from, promising to die before crawling back there.
Against Me! has split from their major label, which gives some hope that that their next album won’t have some superstar producer. Who knows if it’ll actually recapture their past, but as long as they hold on to that passion and intensity from their youth, Against Me! will be a band not to only be seen live, but to be experienced.
(Against Me! performed at Emo’s in Austin, Texas on January 26, 2011)