Words & Photos by Scott Murry
I was a late bloomer on 2002’s Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose, the full length debut by Against Me! that keenly defies convention. Driving home from a Vermont camping trip, I bought my copy at a yard sale for $1.50 from a curmudgeon of a fella. The shock of finding the album in this situation turned to one of the finest four-hour drives I’ve experienced as I listened to the folk-punk tome over and over. It’s a masterpiece of Laura Jane Grace’s screaming with honesty and earnest in search of something bigger both metaphorically and beyond her home of Florida. The group vocals are close and intimate due to the lo-fi recording, which builds on the genuine DIY camaraderie. Axl sounds like friends recording in a basement, having the best day of their lives together, and it means everything as a result.
Against Me! have recorded in top notch situations with primo producers like Butch Vig at this point in their career, and have gone through lineup changes since those early anarcho days, but the album remains something special. Acknowledging this, the band will play it front start to finish at this year’s FEST in Florida. Like many cities on their current tour, Boston got a taste. As the band headlined a sold-out show at the Paradise Rock Club on Tuesday night, they played over 50% of the album. Grace warned they were under-practiced, some tracks having not been played for over a decade. “I needed to practice on the day off yesterday, but I smoked weed all day instead.”
She informed the crowd that the decision was a grand success for her voice and mental health – and it showed! The Axl tracks sounded bigger than ever, also due to their powerful lineup which these days includes veterans Inge Johansson of International Noise Conspiracy on bass and Atom Willard, who has been on the rotisserie of well-seasoned punk bands, drumming over two decades. The songs were played with more confidence and clarity, but still held strong as underground anthems to rally the disillusion out of any wrinkled punk’s brow.
As the world sadly lost fellow Gainesville-born Tom Petty just last week, Grace shared her own personal connection. “My first CD was Full Moon Fever. I strummed a tennis racket in the mirror to his tracks. When I was 12, I graduated to electric Gretsch and started all my bands on that… bad grunge bands. Our songs will never be as good as his.” They followed up with an ode, playing Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
Against Me! played right around 100 minutes—nearly the same time frame as their first three full-length albums put together. While heavy on Axl, the set list incorporated kumbaya sing-alongs and thrashers alike from across their career. The connection that fans felt throughout the set was evident and deeply felt.
Los Angeles natives, Bleached held the stage just before Against Me!, touring on their excellent 2016 release Welcome the Worms (fave of 2016) and new EP Can You Deal. Lead singer Jennifer Clavin swayed with the beat tossing her (fittingly) bleached locks in rhythm. It fit the surf punk, acid rock vibe of tracks like “Keep On Keepin’ On.” Along with sporting a Black Flag tee, Clavin revealed another influence in covering Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings.” Possibly Nirvana’s fastest, most destructive recording, Bleached did it joltingly beautiful justice, even breaking a guitar string in the mania, but some of the crowd still seemed half-attentive. It was a moment where you look around and feel shocked that the venue isn’t erupting.
The Dirty Nil opened the night, an incredibly dynamic band that is a headliner in their own right as well. Lead singer Luke Bentham is a showman, blowing bubble gum in sync with high kicks and power chords—it’s even becoming a signature visual on their t-shirts. It’s as though you’re watching Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future shred at his parent’s prom. Culling influences from Chubby Checker to Kurt Cobain, it’s a massive sound. (Keep your eyes peeled for a “day in the life” feature with these guys coming soon.)