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

Categories: Last Night
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.

See also:
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.

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.

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