Review: Against Me! and its transgender tale

Guitarist Billy Duffy of the Cult at the SXSW Music Festival in March 16. The Cult appeared at the Electric Factory. Jack Plunkett/AP
Guitarist Billy Duffy of the Cult at the SXSW Music Festival in March 16. The Cult appeared at the Electric Factory. Jack Plunkett/AP
Posted: June 12, 2012

You might not have noticed the difference at first. The figure behind the microphone as the Gainesville, Fla., quartet Against Me! drove through a hard-charging 45-minute set at the Electric Factory on Sunday night looked much the same as she did a few months ago, before the band's singer, who had been known as Tommy Gabel, announced that he had become a woman named Laura Jane Grace.

If you stood 12 feet away from the stage, you might have missed the mascara and the dangling earrings and seen only a performer commanding the stage with a furious joy and the tight-knit knot of bodies churning on the floor below.

Grace made only passing reference to her revelation, letting the songs from the band's forthcoming album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, carry the load.

"This goes to out to anyone who's ever felt like people try to put them in a box," she said as a preface to the title track. Fans who'd already learned the lyrics from YouTube shouted along, fists in the air, as she sang, "You want them to see you like they see every other girl?/?They just see a faggot."

Although the album's subject is the life of a transgender prostitute, there was no mistaking the reflections of Grace's own journey. "The Ocean," which the band saved for the home stretch, was more transparent, although the five-year-old song has only become revelatory in retrospect. "If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman," Grace sang to a chorus of approving cheers. What complaints the crowd had were of a mundane variety: fewer new songs, more hits. "Play some old stuff, Tom!" shouted a fan in one of the band's T-shirts. The man behind tapped him gently on the shoulder: "It's Laura now."

Although singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy are the only constant members, the night's headliner, the Cult, has built a nearly 30-year career on a determined kind of stasis. The finish on the Cult's heavy rock songs has shifted with the times, but the substance — Astbury's throaty wail, Duffy's fleet-fingered solos — hasn't changed much. "We're kind of the comeback kids," Astbury said, introducing a song from the new album, Choice of Weapon. But it felt more like they'd never left, or moved at all.

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