At around the mid-mark of Against Me!’s set at Bogart’s in Cincinnati on October 3, frontperson Laura Jane Grace recalled emulating legendary rock and roll songwriter and guitarist Tom Petty in front of a mirror with a tennis racket as a youth. Eventually Grace graduated to an acoustic guitar and eventually, after earning some money of their own, a Tom Petty model Rickenbacher. While this touching and personal account proved the perfect launch pad from which to pay simple and timely tribute to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and fellow Gainesville-bred musician with the band’s take on “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” it perhaps hinted at something deeper.
Fans who’ve read Grace’s biography, Tranny, know that Grace’s journey as a transgendered person has caused a rift with Grace’s father. Similarly, Petty often spoke about his own difficult relationship with his father, who found it hard to accept that his son was “a mild-mannered kid who was interested in the arts.” Grace’s tumultuous journey from mild-mannered artist to show stopping American rock musician, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and record producer has been an exceedingly complicated one fraught with unique pitfalls and triumphs, but is also one that echoes Petty’s a great deal.
While some might wish to take to task a writer drawing comparisons between a “punk singer” and an artist who sold more than 80-million records worldwide, there’s a lot more commonality there than might exist at first glance. Petty was inspired the minute he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan while Grace obsessed first over Petty and Madonna and later bands like Rancid. Grace formed Against Me! As a solo act, and eventually building a band that complimented the edgy, devil-may-care songs that captured the punk lifestyle and spirit they lived day-to-day. Their output has always been a personal and poignant portrait that conjured images of outstretched highways, blood, sweat and tears. Similarly, Petty’s music embodied the rock and roll lifestyle, the grime and the glamour, the highs and lows, and the highways that connected fan to musician.
On this evening, Against Me!, comprised of Grace, longtime guitarist James Bowman, former (International) Noise Conspiracy bassist Inge Johansson, and veteran punk drummer Atom Willard, chased the great wide open to a club in Ohio where they hammered through over two decades of material, including several cuts from the band’s earliest LP Against Me! Is Reinventing Axl Rose (which the band performs in full at this year’s Fest in the band’s hometown). While “punk” shows are no stranger to robust sing-alongs, fist pumping, and sweaty, beer-soaked bodies hurled towards the stage, and this night was no exception, only a band with the confidence, clarity, and mileage of Against Me! is truly capable of transcending genre limitations and transforming an edgy little punk band from Florida into a next-generation, truly monumental and culturally relevant rock and roll band.
Over the course of their hour-and-a-half long set, Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! made their intentions clear; they are redefining punk, redefining genre, and on this evening, perhaps a few or more in attendance wondered if they might also be redefining the late, great Tom Petty. While that is a seemingly unsurmountable undertaking, there might not be another great American rock band more properly poised to take on that challenge. (Words by Tim Anderl, Photos by Jeremy Ward)
The Dirty Nil: