Ghosts and Ghouls
Thursday night's affair at The Stone Fox began as a relatively modest one. When The Spin arrived at the venue a few minutes before things were scheduled to get underway, the Fox was mostly filled with the night's late-dinner crowd and early bar patrons.
Fun-to-Google local trio Music Band was the first to play. They kicked things off to an especially sparse crowd, but by the time they were three songs deep, a sizable audience had magically materialized from the dark corners of The Stone Fox's outdoor smoking decks. Guitarist-singer Harry Kagan — a talented frontman with a serious funny streak (last time we saw the band, he introduced himself as "Verne Troyer") — was careful to mention that Music Band played The Stone Fox every month in 2013, an impressive run that we hope they continue in 2014. Anyway, Music Band has a brand-new live album by the name of Live at Wembley — there's that funny streak again — which can be streamed or downloaded for free via the music band's Bandcamp page. It puts on full display the power trio's blown-out, triple-vocal, bluesy psych-rock approach, which is really like a 21st century take on The Remains or The Sonics. No complaints here.
San Francisco's Cool Ghouls were second up. Their self-titled 2013 debut was met with much love, so we were happy to experience their sounds first-hand. The band embraces the classic "San Francisco sound," keeping with the city's long-established blend of psychedelic rock and folk music. Word is that Cool Ghouls don't like be labeled "retro," which is certainly understandable. We found their gleeful take on psych rock — which sports more tight vocal harmonies than you're likely to hear from your average garage outfit — to be plenty refreshing.
A late start to the festivities meant that by the time Ranch Ghost finally took the stage, The Spin was about ready to pack it in and retire home for some Crazy Hearts: Nashville hate viewing. We stuck it out though, in the name of rock 'n' roll. So did the night's crowd, most of which stayed until the bitter end. This was Ranch Ghost's first show of the year, and the outfit (which has expanded to a five-piece in recent months) will be joining The Weeks on tour in February. We always enjoy the Ghosties' lithe, noodly, desert-rocking grooves, which they manage to weave and punctuate with shimmering rattles of the tambourine. So it was with that that we called it a night, finally heading home for some of that sweet, sweet Crazy Hearts action.
First Dance with Laura Jane
When Against Me! announced they were dropping off a Bad Religion tour that would have marked their triumphant return to Nashville in March 2013, The Spin was majorly bummed. Over the years, we had soured a bit on the Gainesville punk rockers, but between Laura Jane Grace publicly coming out as transgender and the ensuing EP (which turned out to be exactly what we loved about Against Me! in 2003), we were given cause to re-evaluate a band that meant so much to us as little Spinlets. And on Sunday night, at a sold-out Mercy Lounge, we were finally able to make a conclusion: Against Me! is still pretty fucking awesome.
We ascended the Mercy Lounge stairs in the middle of a Hebrew lesson and mildly condescending stage banter (yes, New Yorkers, we have Jews in Tennessee) care of The Shondes, a four-piece feminist pop-punk outfit from Brooklyn that is definitely not to be confused with Tommy James' Shondells, who were neither feminist nor punk. Alternating between sounding like The Pogues on a social-activism tear — mainly due to the inclusion of violinist Elijah Oberman — and what we imagine Ani DiFranco fronting a punk band would be like, The Shondes loaded their songs to the gills with anthemic gang vocals and ferocious social consciousness. Which is to say, it's almost like they were genetically engineered to open for Against Me!
The Sidekicks, by comparison, weren't particularly punk rock at all. Instead, the Columbus-based power-pop band aimed more for connecting the dots between Pinkerton-era Weezer and Saves the Day, putting all of their weight into the sort of tunes that we would've been all over at age 14. Like Further Seems Forever, except, you know, not as churchy. Our best guess is that now that we're nearly two decades past the foundation of emo's power-pop wing, this counts as re-emerging nostalgia. Which makes us feel ancient and we hate it — not The Sidekicks, who did that style of music fine service by not leaning into the natural whininess of it all, but being reminded of our collection of Tooth & Nail Records CDs. Yikes.
But that's not what the teeming horde of punk fans, young and old, were massed into a dense mosh pit in front of the stage for. At the stroke of 10:50 p.m., Laura Jane Grace emerged from the curtained backstage area, and 500 people promptly lost their shit. It's been more than a decade since we first saw Against Me! down in the bowels of the dearly departed Muse, long before the band opened for Foo Fighters in arenas and singer Tom Gabel made the dramatic transformation into Laura Jane Grace. It's still a show we talk about to this day, and in the throng of fans screaming along to every word of "Pints of Guinness Make Us Strong," we couldn't help but feel the déjà vu.
Even before Grace publicly came out as transgender, Against Me! has always been one of those capital-I important bands to a particular type of person. It's doubtful that many of the people crammed into Mercy Lounge on Sunday night could specifically identify with Grace's gender dysphoria, but they sure as hell could identify with the themes of self-acceptance that litter Against Me!'s discography. Grace simultaneously manages to be vulnerable and aggressive, making her a wildly compelling artist onstage. Maybe a little too compelling, as it turns out. As the show went on, a member of the band's posse had his hands full keeping crowd surfers from landing onstage and bouncing dudes who thought it was all right to hop up, throw a clearly unwelcome arm around Grace and sing along into the mic. On one hand, it's a testament to Against Me!'s connection with their fans that they feel like this sort of thing is totally cool. But on the other hand, it's not cool. We'll admit that the flying, crowd-surfed trashcan in the middle of the show was pretty great, however.
Beyond Grace, the rest of the band suited her snarling vocals admirably, both on the older, jagged-edged folk-punk tunes and the newer pop-punk singles. Guitarist James Bowman is the only remaining member from the band's Fat Wreck and No Idea days, but the new guys — including former Rocket From the Crypt drummer Atom Willard — kept the momentum at wrecking-ball speed and didn't distract from Grace's spotlight magnetism.
After an hour and change, the show wound down with "The Ocean," the confessional finale to 2007's New Wave, and "Sink, Florida, Sink," a sentiment we can all get behind and which elicited a mass sing-along that reminded us exactly why we're still talking about that scruffy folk-punk band we saw in a dingy venue under a highway all those years ago. The best thing we can say about Against Me!'s identity with Grace rather than Gabel is that it hasn't changed a bit. If anything, Grace's renewed confidence onstage is remarkable and, at times, astonishing. It's just a shame that a handful of drunk dummies tried to take that spotlight for themselves.