November 27, 2007

Against Me! rides New Wave toward success

Last Wednesday evening, when most people were heading out of town for Thanksgiving, I was standing in line at the House of Blues, waiting to get patted down by a bouncer so that I could gain admittance through the baffling series of velvet ropes that cordoned off the lobby of the building. I had picked up this assignment not because of any particular appreciation for punk music, but rather out of a vague sense of kinship with the band: Against Me! are from Gainesville, Florida, and so am I, and I wondered how hard the assignment could be. Yet when I found myself standing next to the merchandising tables, waiting on an interview that would never materialize, as people wearing black T-shirts with somewhat violent slogans milled around me, I began to think that I was seriously out of my element.

Against Me! had no such problem when they finally took to the stage a good three hours after the doors had opened for the show. After four opening acts, the crowd was getting restless, and Tom Gabel and company received a relieved welcome when they finally strode onstage. Rather than bantering much with the audience, as less confident bands might, Against Me! went straight into their set, counting on their fans to stay with them on the verses to their most recognizable songs.

They opened the concert with “Up the Cuts,” from their newest album New Wave, which asked the audience, “Are you restless like me?” I had the feeling that everyone there, from the preteen girls on the stairs to the middle-aged men at the bar, could relate.

It was a pleasant surprise when Against Me! sounded better than my memory of them had predicted. In the eponymous track to the new album, they had proclaimed, “We can control the medium/ We can control the context of presentation,” and in fact they had advanced. They were less rough around the edges, and their melodic lines more solid. Though the band has been accused of selling out, due to their tendency of moving to bigger labels with each successive album, they at least sounded as passionate during the show as one could hope.

Against Me! are better live, when their crisp, brash sound can be experienced at maximum intensity. A good half of the audience sang along with every song, which enhanced rather than detracted from the effect. While the many layers of their music are mixed, almost messy, Against Me! are intelligent punk musicians and kept the concert from degenerating into a simple orgy of noise. Their most recent music crosses into what one would think of as alternative rock. The audience that night was seemingly unsure of what to do with such songs, but those newest songs are more approachable on the whole and fit solidly between the punk and rock genres of this decade.

The band pulled out “Baby, I’m an Anarchist” to conclude the concert after one encore. The older, iconic song drew the most applause of the evening.

I remember being in middle school and seeing Against Me! CDs in the library, with yellow “local artist” stickers on the cases, like those on the old Tom Petty cassette tapes that no one ever checked out. I remember seeing kids wearing their slogan shirts and taking forever to figure out that people weren’t coming up with that exhortation on their own. The last time I had thought about Against Me! before this show was when I heard them mentioned in passing: “Did you know, Against Me! are getting something of a national presence these days? They’re getting big, did you know?”

And these days, Against Me! are living well, producing new records and controlling the medium, selling out shows at the House of Blues in Chicago. A decade ago this year, Against Me! was just Tom Gabel making noise anywhere in our shared hometown that would have him. They’ve come quite a ways.