"And if I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman
My mother once told me she would have named me Laura."
—Against Me! "The Ocean," New Wave (2007)
TOM GABEL once sang about his desire to have been born a woman named Laura.
This past May, life began to imitate art when the Against Me! lead singer and songwriter came out as transgender and decided to start living life publicly as a woman named Laura Jane Grace. Against Me!'s career had long been defined by transitions, from their early days as anarcho-folk purists releasing 7-inches on the ultra-DIY Plan-It-X label to bearing the torch of beard-punk saviors by breathing new life into the "lost in 1994" sound of Fat Wreck Chords. But nothing in retrospect would compare to the absolute paradigm shift that Gabel's transformation to Grace represents for both the band and the audience. Prior stylistic changes may have been risky in terms of artistic integrity, but Grace's gutsy proclamation was downright courageous on every level—and punk as fuck to boot.
Thankfully, unlike the visceral anger that met the band after their 2006 decision to sign to a major label (slashed tires on the van, physical altercations at shows, and of course, the requisite mean-spirited internet comments), Grace's decision to make peace with her own identity has been met with overwhelming praise and encouragement from both the punk community and the public at large. This is good, not just from a maybe-our-culture-isn't-totally-fucked standpoint, but good because the focus ought to shift away from band members' personal lives and back to the intrinsic value of their music.
Indicated by recent live shows and last year's excellent "Russian Spies"/"Occult Enemies" 7-inch, Grace & Co. are finally striking a balance between the raucous, shout-along energy of their early days in the basement and the arena-ready, populist sound of their past two releases. While playing solo at the Portland stop of the roots-oriented Revival Tour this past spring (one of her last shows as outwardly male), Grace debuted two new songs, "Black Me Out" and "Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ." The new material showcased the same grit and raw emotion of the band's early releases, and demonstrated the near-perfect marriage of the personal and the political that has made Against Me!'s lyrics so captivating and empowering throughout their career.
With new drummer Jay Weinberg (son of Max!) bringing a renewed energy to their live show, this year's appearance at MusicfestNW will be an excellent opportunity to see the full band flesh out new material before the release of their upcoming album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Of course, it will also be the first chance for Portlanders to catch Against Me! as a female-fronted act.
I personally doubt, though, the change will be all that marked once the band starts tearing through their tremendous back catalog of sweat-drenched sing-alongs like "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong" and the poignant mid-tempo rock balladry of tracks from 2010's White Crosses. I have a feeling the crowd will not be so focused on the gender of the person singing the songs, but be fully entrenched in the experience of witnessing one of America's premier punk bands pour it all out onstage. The real shock is if anyone walks away from this show with a dry shirt and full use of their vocal cords.