Review: Against Me! turns pain into triumph at the Troubadour

Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace performs at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Monday.
Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace performs at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Monday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The music was straightforward: blunt-force punk rock loaded with brawny guitars and set to a galloping beat. The ideas in play, though, were anything but simple.

Leading her band Against Me! on Monday night at the Troubadour, Laura Jane Grace roared through “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” a surging march-tempo number in which she channeled the inner thoughts of someone in conflict with herself.

“You want them to see you like they see any other girl,” she bellowed, before acknowledging, “but we can’t choose how we’re made.”


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Grace sings from experience.

Two years ago, Laura Jane Grace was known as Tom Gabel, the tattooed frontman of this sturdy Florida quartet, which after a slow ascent through the punk underground burst into the mainstream with the acclaimed 2007 album “New Wave.”

But in May 2012, Gabel came out as transgender, telling Rolling Stone that for as long as he could remember he’d endured “a feeling of detachment” from his own body. Becoming a woman -- physically, psychologically and within the context of an American rock band -- would be an “awkward transition period,” he said, but one he had no choice but to go through.

That struggle is at the core of a striking new Against Me! record, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” due in January. Beyond the title track, it includes songs such as “True Trans Soul Rebel” (“You should’ve been a mother / You should’ve been a wife,” Grace sings) and one with an unprintable name in which she wonders, “Is your mother proud of your eyelashes? Silicone chest and collagen lips?”

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The album bleeds pain in places -- most vividly in “Drinking With the Jocks,” where Grace lashes herself for spending “all of my life just like I was one of them.” (Its first-person perspective stands out amid so many songs addressed to “you.”)

But there was nothing tortured about Against Me! at the Troubadour, where the singer and her bandmates -- some of whom have shifted since the group’s last album, 2010’s “White Crosses” -- stopped for a one-off club date on their way to Japan.

Here Grace projected a kind of triumph even as she insisted in “Unconditional Love” that such guaranteed devotion “still wouldn’t be enough to save me.”

Some of that power came from the band’s muscular playing, especially that of Atom Willard, whose drums kept propelling the music forward; he helped make the group’s old songs -- including the stomping “Miami” and “The Ocean,” a thoughtful “New Wave” cut that foreshadowed the changes to come in Grace’s life -- feel as fresh as the new ones.

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But Grace seemed also to be drawing strength from the enthusiasm of the capacity crowd, which turned those old songs into rowdy singalongs and welcomed the unfamiliar tunes as though they were already favorites. During “Sink, Florida, Sink,” from 2003, audience members surged toward the stage, with several men and women crowd-surfing close enough to the singer to grab her hand.

Only she can say what that reaction means. Part of Grace’s message on “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” is the importance of finding value in oneself, beyond whatever legitimacy society seeks to confer. On Monday, though, her fans’ approval visibly moved her.

“This makes living worthwhile,” she said at the end of the show, and there went up another cheer.


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Twitter: @mikaelwood