Attending two live shows in three days at the same venue definitely gives you a unique perspective. As I sit down to write this review, I find myself comparing the shows. This would be unfair even if the artists were similar. In this instance, they aren’t, so I am ardently to look at last night’s show in a vacuum.
Last night’s show featured two bands that share relatively similar genres…and not much else. At this point in time, Against Me! has become an elder statesman on the punk circuit. With six albums and over a decade of touring under their belts, they have built up a relatively small but diehard following. Known primarily for combining fast, punchy guitar riffs with pulsing drum beats and lyrics that are overtly political, Against Me! knows what they are good at, and they execute.
But what made last night’s performance so intriguing was the widely publicized subject of lead singer Laura Jane Grace and her gender dysphoria. Born Tom Gable, Laura Jane Grace announced she would be transitioning to life as a woman in a powerful and extremely poignant article published in Rolling Stone in 2012. This was the second time I had seen Against Me!, but the first since 2012. I’m unashamed to admit that I was curious to see what, if anything, might be different about the band and its lead singer.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out the answer: very little had changed, and a lot had changed. Against Me! was the same in-your-face, unapologetic whirlwind of punk that I had enjoyed as a younger version of myself, when their songs about subjects such as teenage anarchy, disenchantment with the military industrial complex, or drinking too many Guinness resonated most deeply. With their new album Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the whirlwind is still there, even if the subject matter has changed. With the album title setting the stage, the new Against Me! isn’t shy about attacking head on the issues that Laura Jane Grace has faced in her transition to being a woman – fear, rebellion, hatred, desire for acceptance, and many others. The album is powerful because it’s personal, and that comes through even more live. In many ways, Against Me! is as good and relevant as ever.
The headliner of the night was The Gaslight Anthem, a band that has now released five albums since 2007, the most recent being Get Hurt in early August, 2014. This show was the opening act of a tour for the aforementioned record, a tour that will take them all over North America and Europe.
I don’t secretly like The Gaslight Anthem – they have been one of my favorite bands for over six years. This was my second time seeing them live, while also seeing a solo acoustic show a few years back with lead singer Brian Fallon. But coming into last night, that favoritism had begun to wane. Get Hurt takes Gaslight in a new direction. Gone are the days of uber-catchy, vivid, punk-inspired, heart-broken, modern-day Springsteen tracks. In place are grungier, arena-sized rock anthems that leave a lot to be desired. And the change is just as evident live as it is on the new album. An over-the-top light show attempted to distract from the fact that they played very few songs from their previous four albums. This didn’t feel like a band wanting to proudly unleash new tracks to the world – but rather, a band that was hiding from its past. As if their fans had forgotten where they came from.
Admittedly, the show was entertaining throughout. But what it more readily accomplished was to defend my pre-conceived notions that the band had changed, and in my opinion, not for the better. No single moment better portrayed Gaslight’s attempt at transitioning to serious rock band than their choice for final song of the night – The Who’s “Baba O’Riley (Teenage Wasteland).” This, apparently, was a page ripped directly from their primary inspiration for the new album – Pearl Jam. Unfortunately, it came across as far too contrived, and left a lot to be desired until The Gaslight Anthem (hopefully) goes back to their roots.