Despite all the anxiety, nihilism, and self-loathing that permeates much of Gainesville, Fla., punk act Against Me!'s music, for many fans, the group still serves as an escape from the angst that ails them. And 20 years into the band's career, nothing — not changes in record label, band members, or gender — seems to be able to stop them from filling that role.
She hardly had to ask. Across about 90 minutes, the band unleashed a set that included several tracks from its most recent release, 2016's Shape Shift with Me, such as "333," "Delicate, Petite & Other Things I'll Never Be," and "Rebecca." The group also reached back to 2014's Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which followed Grace's coming out as transgender in 2012, for tracks like "Unconditional Love" and "Black Me Out," which got one of the strongest responses of the night from the crowd.
Grace also paid tribute to one of her own heroes, the late Tom Petty, with a cover of "Runnin' Down a Dream." As the singer explained, her first CD ever was a copy of Petty's Full Moon Fever — an album that inspired Grace's love of performing and Rickenbacker guitars, which Petty often played. Grace plays one today, but the one she often uses is, of course, jet-black, as compared to Petty's fiery red model.
"I've always had a connection to Tom Petty's music," Grace said Thursday night. "Technically, my first performances were lip-syncing to that album in front of my mirror."
In many ways, however, Thursday night's show was a set for old-school fans, with the band breaking out more than half of the tracks from 2002's Reinventing Axl Rose, its breakout album. As Grace explained, Against Me! plan to play the album in its entirety at a show in Gainesville and hoped to use the tour as practice, as changes in members over the years mean the current band has technically never played some of the album's songs together.
In fact, only two original members, Grace and guitarist James Bowman, remain; bassist Inge Johansson and drummer Atom Willard joined the group in 2013. But as Grace and Co. burned through tracks from the album, such as "Jordan's 1st Choice," "Pints of Guinness Make You Strong," and "Baby, I'm an Anarchist," it sure didn't seem like it.
"Walking Is Still Honest," however, was punk rock perfection, with fans storming the stage to sing the chorus, and Grace giving up her mic to let it happen. From stage-diving to crowd-surfing and circle pits, it's all cathartic at a punk show, helping to "push away the flaming trash can that is reality," as Grace put it Thursday.
One fan who could be seen stage diving and crowd surfing throughout the night, Oliver Hartman, 25, of Philadelphia, identified particularly with Grace's focus on gender, with Hartman himself coming out as transgender in 2014. Against Me!'s music served as "the first time I had heard songs written about people like me," as Hartman says, and he was hooked.
"Seeing Laura perform live is always such a spiritual performance," Hartman said. "It means a lot to see a transgender person at the head of such a successful band."
That type of crowd interaction is standard, judging by Against Me!'s small-venue punk show roots and Grace's level of comfort on stage during the most raucous moments Thursday. As fans crowd-surfed up to her, she would point and smile, making them part of the performance before they even got to the stage. At one point, a man jumped up and flashed his bare stomach at her, to which Grace responded by gently patting it between verses.
It's hardly the type of behavior you'd expect to see 11 days after a gunman killed 58 people and injured more than 500 others at a concert in Las Vegas. But maybe that's what Grace was getting at about jumping into existential dread. She jumps in so we can overcome it, and sometimes that requires a little risk.
The crowd — a lot of it, actually — returned to the stage for "Sink, Florida, Sink" from 2003's As the Eternal Cowboy, the final song of the night. It started slow, with just a few people, but by the first chorus, you could hardly see the band amid fans who were alternately singing their hearts out, taking it all in, and freaking out about sharing a space with people they admire. In terms of escape, it doesn't get much better than that.
Ultimately, though, the house lights pushed every reveler back out into the real world. Today, though, hopefully it feels more bearable.