Against Me! w/Screaming Females
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Sunday, June 5
Better than: A lecture on the evils of “selling out” delivered by a second-semester college freshman.
Against Me! played the first seven songs of their blistering set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Sunday night one right after another, without stopping. Then, the crowd going sufficiently gonzo and the band’s black t-shirts sufficiently soaked, they took a sensible, 30- or 45-second break and then roared through 10 more at exact the same rate of urgency and velocity, letting the end of one song collide right into the beginning of the next like some lunatic game of punk-rock bumper cars. It went that way all night: no ballads, no sermons, just speed, volume and the kind of six-billion-watt choruses that sound best when shouted by a roomful of people. Frontman Tom Gabel didn’t even address the audience directly until nearly halfway through the set, and then only to set up “White Crosses” as “a pro-choice song.” He mostly just beamed and hollered and sawed frantically downward on his guitar again and again.
What’s more remarkable than the fact that Against Me! can deliver 75 straight minutes of this without someone’s lungs exploding is the fact that they can do it at such a tenuous juncture in their career. In December, they were released from their contract with Warner Brothers—a development that especially stings given how much grief they took for signing with them in the first place (this was, after all, a band who wrote a song about the major-label music system that bore the subtle title “Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners”). The demotion can’t help but bear a slight whiff of failure, but about thirty seconds into “Cliché Guevara” on Sunday night—the one that, perhaps not insignificantly, opens with the line, “We will keep ourselves in a place/ where it’s easy to hold on”—any notion that the group was helplessly adrift was sucker-punched into dreamland.
Chalk a lot of that up to new drummer Jay Weinberg—of, yes, the New Jersey Weinbergs. Jay’s father Max knows a little something about playing drums in a vaguely political band whose boss is fond of playing overly physical, multiple-hour sets with no breaks. Weinberg was an Against Me! fan before he was an Against Me! member, and you could tell from the way he leaned bug-eyed over his set, looking like Crazy Harry, singing every word right along with Gabel. They seemed to be spurring one another on: Weinberg is a fierce, volcanic player, and his thrashing, insistent playing seemed to be shoving the songs forward from behind. Just as one wave of guitars was cresting, he’d summon another with a frantic fill. The group played in front of six pillars of severe white lightbulbs that illuminated with the first note and stayed that way for the entire set, which seemed to add to the imperative feel; it was as if the police were on the way, and the band was trying to get as many songs out as possible before they were hauled off. The crowd seemed just as frantic: there was not a single cameraphone held up to record a song, and no one in the pit was Tweeting while dancing. For the first time in recent memory, everyone who was at the show was at the show.
The band was a supernova of charisma. “Americans Abroad,” Gabel’s guilt-ridden analysis of his own role in U.S. imperialism, heaved and flailed, and “Don’t Lose Touch,” with its martial backbeat, came off like the rallying cry of a paranoiac.
Losing touch is kind of a pet theme of Gabel’s, one that’s grown more pronounced since the group moved past the predictable politics and airless didacticism of their early releases into a kind of nuanced—and, ultimately, both more compassionate and more realistic—worldview. Absolutes, after all, don’t make for especially interesting art, and it’s not surprising that Against Me! became more compelling when they started to bend their lyrical exclamation points into question marks. Still, notions of compromise seem to haunt Gabel, and many of the songs on Sunday struggled to reconcile the passions of youth with the expectations of adulthood.
Nowhere was that clearer than in Gabel’s quasi-autobiographical “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” delivered late in the evening to maximum impact and dedicated slyly by Gabel to “the old punks in the back of the room.” Its chorus consists of just one line, but in it Gabel sounds proud and embarrassed and wistful all at once: “Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?” Whether it serves as rebuke or rejuvenation, it’s remembering that’s the key.
In the end, though, it was the young punks in the front of the room who won the night. It’s appropriate that a band who spent so much of their career exploring notions of anarchy should find their set ending in exactly that: with a group of first three, then six, then as many as a dozen enthusiastic fans clambering up on the stage, crowding around the microphones and yelling the chorus of the show-closing “We Laugh At Danger (And Break All the Rules)” at the top of their lungs, radiating a combination of euphoria and invincibility. The old punks in the back of the room remember what that felt like.
Critical bias: I identify with most of the protagonists of Gabel’s later songs.
Random notebook dump: I never understood the whole “Beach Ball at a Concert!” phenomenon, and even less so when the show is indoors.