There isn’t really any escaping the fact that the Against Me! that hit the UK this week is, in almost every conceivable way, not the same one that last hit our shores for any meaningful amount of time. They may share a name, and the same superb back catalogue of blood and guts, heart on the sleeve punk rock, but that is basically it.
Bar a half hour slot at this year’s Download Festival, it’s been years since we’ve seen much of the Chicago outfit. So needless to say interest in the new Against Me! that has risen so remarkably from the ashes and disintegration of the old, has been at an all-time high. Already Heard headed to Leeds Beckett Student’s Union to see Laura Jane Grace and her new troops in action, more than a little excited to hear tracks from one of the year’s most incendiary new albums live.
The night started in fairly low key fashion, with support coming from AM’s Xtra Mile label mate Billy The Kid. Despite feeling the effects of illness, the Canadian singer songwriter showed just why she is viewed as one of the brightest emerging solo talents around. A respectful hush descended over the room as her set began, and it didn’t take long for heads to bob and faces to smile appreciatively. It’s impossible to witness Billy in action and not be utterly won over by her bashful charm and effortlessly moving folk meets punk song writing. Playing a set mostly taken from new album ‘Horseshoes and Handgrenades’ she clearly wins over plenty of new friends, with ‘This Sure As Hell Ain’t My Life’ and ‘The River’ going down especially well. Even on a night where she herself admits her vocals aren’t quite where she wants them to be, it’s difficult to find a flaw in her sweetly hit high notes or soulfully delivered lows, a rendition of older song ‘Boxcars’ allowing the power and quality of her voice to shine through. That Billy won’t be headlining shows like this in her own right within a year or two seems hard to doubt. (4/5)
But this was just the calm before the storm. After what seemed like an excessively long wait, once they hit the stage Against Me! waste no further time with introductions before ripping ferociously into ‘Fuck My Life 666’. It’s immediately obvious that, if the Against Me! of a few years ago where a good band with some great songs, the band currently creating mayhem are an incredible live band with some exceptional songs. Laura Jane Grace chose incredibly wisely when recruiting members to resurrect and rebuild the band that has become her life. Atom Willard had long been one of the most esteemed and trusted sticksmen in punk rock when he was drafted in, then add to that former Refused and International Noise Cartel bassist Inge Johansson and you have one seriously formidable rhythm section. Live the pair add an intensity, bite and swagger to AM’s live sound that outstrips anything the band have enjoyed before. And the vibrant charismatic presence of the latter adds balance alongside the solid stoic presence of Grace’s long time lieutenant guitarist James Bowman.
Then you get to Laura Jane Grace. A performer free, reborn and indescribably captivating if ever there was one. There’s a visible sparkle in the eyes as Grace struts proprietorially about the stage, revelling in the sheer ire, fire, sass and punk rock sweat that resonates from her very being and infects every person in the room. Old favourites like ‘New Wave’ and ‘Pints Of Guiness Make You Strong’ jostle boisterously for attention and acclaim with raw, empassioned performances of tracks from ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ including ‘Black Me Out’ and ‘Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ’. ‘I Was A Teenage Anarchist’ sounds as vital and life affirming as ever, before an ecstatic Billy The Kid returns to join Grace on vocal duty for ‘Bourne on the FM Waves of the Heart’. It was Billy’s YouTube cover of the song that first brought Billy to Grace’s attention, and it seems the two have quickly bonded and developed a strong chemistry in just a few days of touring.
An excitable crowd continues to build to fever pitch that nears its crescendo as Leeds take’s Grace, her choices, and the song that has quickly becoming her rallying cry firmly to its heart; roaring out every word of ‘True Trans Soul Rebel’. Much to Grace’s visible delight. That just leaves it to ‘Thrash Unreal’ to draw the main set to a feel good close and have the Beckett Students Union chomping at the bit for the encore. Grace, Willard and co duly oblige returning for raucous performances of ‘Dead Friends’ and ‘Drinking With The Jocks’ before a rapturously enjoyed airing of ‘We Laugh At Danger (And Break All The Rules)’ puts the exclamation point on the evening.
On this form Laura Jane Grace show that not only are they one of the most uniquely positive and attitude changing stories in modern rock, but more importantly they are one of the most essential to experience and impossible not to love Punk acts ever. Laura Jane Grace truly is the all-conquering first lady of punk, and long may it continue. (4.5/5)
Words and Photos by Dane Wright (@MrDaneWright).