The best concerts seem more like religious experiences than rock shows – the gathered speaking in tongues known only to the faithful, crying tears born of shared pain and ecstasy and generally carrying on as if rock n’ roll can and did save their wretched lives. Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers’ show upstairs at the Waiting Room was definitely one of these events; wet-eyed, open-throated and hands-aloft, the crowd responded to every song as if they had waited their entire lives to hear them. Against Me! is no stranger to these parts, having played the Buffalo area several times in the last decade, but this iteration of Grace’s musical vehicle (consisting of stalwart drummer Atom Willard and bassist Marc Hudson) was something special to behold.
Alternating between songs from her catalog and reading from journals and an upcoming autobiography, the evening had the feel of a particularly great episode of VH1’s old “Storytellers” series, with Grace highlighting the maddening gender dysphoria which clearly plagued her from an early age. This through-line – of alienation, shame and not feeling like you belong in your own skin – was palpably poignant. Lit solely by strings of Christmas lights that were strung to their mic stands, Grace’s journey of self-discovery through song hit all of the high notes of her estimable catalog: older favorites like “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” and “Tonight We’re Gonna Give It 35%” cuddled up nicely next to tracks from 2014’s watershed, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” but it was perhaps the passionate cover of the Replacements’ “Androgynous” that served best as the Rosetta Stone for understanding not only where Grace came from, but also where she is going. Thrashing away at her acoustic guitar as Willard shuffled behind her, the DNA for most of Against Me!’s best songs could be found in Westerberg’s plaintive plea to outsider, mid-80s, queer politics. Fists pumped along and couples along every part of the gender spectrum swayed in her thrall, and it was exactly as it should be. Her new album, reportedly ready for release later this year, should be a fascinating look at the here and now of an artist who continues to blaze her own trail.
As for the opener, poor Dave Dondero. He played a set of sterling blues-indebted folk tunes, similar in tone to Peter Case’s recent stuff or early 70s Dylan. He’s a tremendous songwriter, and sadly his music was drowned out by the overly-enthusiastic fans of the headliner (a fact that seemed to cause him some consternation, commenting on it throughout the set and ultimately cutting it short). A damn shame, and the sad price of opening for someone with such a fervent following.