Against Me! pay homage to Tom Petty at Cleveland concert
Eric Sandt

Laura Jane Grace is a rock and roll survivor who’s battled addiction, divorce, and band mate attrition during her two-decade career with Against Me! She needed a new ride (and band equipment) when her van was totaled by a semi, dental reconstructive surgery when a mic stand shattered her teeth, and a good contractor when a tree fell on her home studio in Elkton, Florida.

Then there’s that whole gender dysphoria thing, too.

See, Grace wasn’t always Laura Jane. Not on the outside, anyway.  But after a lifetime of struggling with her identity the singer went public with her transition, effectively grabbing a new lease on life as a hard-rocking, LGBT-championing frontwoman

Grace wrote about the life change in her journals, which were the basis of her 2016 autobiography Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. But most fans would agree it’s more fun hearing Grace put her words to music.

She did just that with Against Me! at House of Blues Cleveland on October 4th.

The hardscrabble four-piece is currently out promoting its latest (and seventh overall) album, Shape-Shift With Me (Total Treble Music), along with openers Bleached and The Dirty Nil.  Grace and the boys—including longtime guitarist James Bowman—broke out four or five new Shape-Shift tracks, but the black-clad (and prodigiously inked) ensemble packed its twenty-plus song set with oldies from the Butch Vig (Garbage)-produced New Wave (2007), Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose (2002), and Transgender Dysphoria Blues (2014), too.

Grace visited Cleveland last summer to accept the Icon Award at the 2017 Alternative Press Music Awards (APMAs) at Playhouse Square.  She seemed pleased to be back in the home of rock, her grin occasionally discernable beneath her long locks as she tore into her Gibson guitar on “True Trans Soul Rebel,” “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” “Provision L3,” and “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (Energizer).”

To Grace’s right, Bowman churned away on a Les Paul and bellowed background vocals during “Miami,” “Up the Cuts,” “Jordan’s First Choice,” and “Walking Is Still Honest.”  But the audience also had Grace’s back too, vocally speaking, taking up most of the Against Me! refrains without having to be asked.

Bassist Inge Johannson (ex-Noise Conspiracy, Lost Patrol Band)—he with the Dee Dee Ramone haircut and gorgeous Rickenbacker bass—pinned the low end on “Haunting Haunted Haunts” and “Delicate, Petite, and Other Things I’ll Never Be.”  Meanwhile, dynamic drummer Atom Willard (Danko Jones, Angels & Airwaves) wailed over the skins, his pneumatic stick work nailing the measures and keeping the crowd moving.

The sudden passing of fellow Floridian Tom Petty wasn’t lost on Grace, who took a moment to honor the Full Moon Fever legend.

“All my first live performances were really just me strumming a tennis racket in front of a mirror to that record,” confessed Grace.

“When my dad got me my first electric guitar, it was a Traveling Wilburys guitar.”

Grace said she’d be hard pressed to pick a single favorite Heartbreakers song, but “Running Down a Dream” made for a terrific tribute, with Laura Jane vigorously strumming a steel-string acoustic while the boys extrapolated—and recreated—the 1989 tune’s inherent propulsive punk-ness.

It was a poignant, powerful moment in an evening of powerful moments.

Late-set highlights included “333,” “Rebecca,” “The Ocean,” “Black Me Out,” “Bamboo Bones,” and the band’s first U.S. chart single, “Thrash Unreal.”  But the sweat-soaked musicians came back for more, encoring with “Two Coffins,” “Pints of Guinness,” “Sink Florida Sink,” and (unofficial Reinventing Axl theme) “We Laugh at Danger and Break all the Rules.”

The boisterous, strenuous showing by the alt-punk vets went a long way to inject a bit of fun, escapism, rebellion—not to mention safety and a sense of community—in a week marked by the violence in Vegas. 

California quartet Bleached didn’t merely assume the middle-slot; they commanded it.

Featuring sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, the L.A. act warmed—and won over—Wednesday evening revelers with forty minutes of hardcore-tinged power-pop from the full-lengths Ride Your Heart (2013) and Welcome the Worms (2016).  The singing sibs also broke out fresh, don’t-call-us-a-girl-group cuts from the recent EP Can You Deal?

Jennifer handled lead vocals and rhythm guitar on “Keep On Keepin’ On,” “Sour Candy,” and “Sleepwalking” while Jessica bolstered the mix with backing vocals and lead guitar, hair flailing and David Bowie button gleaming on her suspenders in the spotlights.

A pair of covers came midway through the Bleached blitzkrieg: The Misfits’ “Hybrid Moments” was brief but brutal (Jennifer had a Misfits “Fiend” sticker on her red Fender Mustang), while Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” was appropriately aggressive and angry.

Nick Pillot provided propulsive beats on “Electric Chair” and “For the Feels,” pouring deep percussive foundations for the Clavins’ crunchy chords and sizzling string attack.  Jennifer abandoned her guitar for a couple songs, giving herself over to her vocals and interacting with the crowd.  During finale “Dead in the Head” she switched places with Pillot and played his drums while he strummed her guitar.

Canadian trio The Dirty Nil opened with a half hour of hyperkinetic rock from the 2016 album Higher Power and 2017 B-sides compilation Minimum R&B.

Fronted by guitarist Luke Bentham, the Dundas-based band bulldozed through the frenetic “Zombie-Eyed,” “No Weaknesses,” “F#@kin’ Up Young,” and feisty “Pissed Off if You Want.”

Snarky and energetic, the three-piece sounded a bit like Weezer.   Bentham—who dedicated “Always High” to folks seated in the balcony—had full control of his yellow Gibson Les Paul, and Ross Miller (bass) and Kyle Fisher (drums) made a killer rhythm combo. 

The guys introduced the German-titled “Wiedersehen” as a power-punk song meaning “See You Again.”  Bentham tweaked a translucent guitar during the brisk “Friends in the Sky” but reverted to his Gibson for “Wrestle You to Husker Du,” wind-milling the strings (and blowing bubbles with his chewing gum) a la The Who’s Pete Townshend.