They opened with “Cliché Guevara.” The band started it off too slow but I decided 10 seconds in that I didn’t care and put everything I had into screaming “1-2-3-4!” The set had just started and my voice was already shot. Lightheaded. Tingling. Should have had dinner. I can tell how out of shape I’ve become since my last Against Me! show based on how quickly I get winded the next time. People used to bear down and beat me from every side and I’d still be able to shout every line; now I’m standing up front but without any violence and I’m winded worse than ever. But I couldn’t stop stomping my feet, bobbing my head, and feeling giddy as hell over the music.
The above is what I felt when I saw Against Me! headline Philadelphia’s Electric Factory Thursday, October 9 with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Future of the Left. The show was pretty much amazing from start to finish. The venue took a little while to fill up, perhaps due to the Phillies-Dodgers game, perhaps because it was a school night. It’s a shame more folks didn’t catch Future of the Left. While I was initially repulsed by their post-punk Gang of Four / XTC / PiL / [insert ’80s band here] style, I found myself becoming more and more intrigued with each song. The band is much more aggressive than most post-punk revivalists, putting them in closer league with maybe Mindless Self Indulgence or maybe even Big Black. The trio was just as entertaining with their banter as they were with their songs, dealing with a heckler by saying, “I don’t come to where you work and interrupt you. I don’t slap the dicks out of your mouth.” Dick jokes rule forever!
Celtic punker Ted Leo was snappy too, chastising a fan for requesting “Since U Been Gone” with, “If we were friends, you would not ask me that.” Mostly, though, Leo just tore through last year’s Living with the Living with the energy of someone half his age. I hope I look that cool when I’m 38. Opening his set with “Sons of Cain,” Leo and his three supporting Pharmacists were irrepressibly peppy. This being my first Leo experience, I was disappointed at the lack of Tyranny of Distance / Hearts of Oak material, but at least I got “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”, which is still my favorite Ted tune, and “Biomusicology.” Besides, hearing songs like “Army Bound” and “Who Do You Love?” bathed in dirty guitar chords, pounding drums and Leo’s wonderfully expansive voice was worthwhile. Leo is one those performers who I could watch play endlessly; the set list kind of doesn’t matter. I’ll accept Chisel, Trebel in Trouble, sound collages, Kelly Clarkson covers, whatever.
Another highlight was a sloppy rendition of “Little Dawn,” from 2004’s Shake the Sheets. Drummer Chris Wilson had some trouble keeping up with Leo, but the ramshackle rendition felt more alive, or at least more punk-y. The set ended up being too brief at about 45 minutes, but I still felt deeply moved by the band’s energy. Now if only I could get some “Timorous Me” up in here…
As for the black-clad members of Against Me!, well, they played it too safe early on, with set openers “Cliché Guevara” and “New Wave” performed efficiently but too slowly. Things picked up by “White People for Peace.” Drummer Warren Oakes was a flash of arms and wide grins while bassist Andrew Seward brought the crowd the gift of hand claps and intense stares. As for co-vocalists Tom Gabel and James Bowman, well, they’re perfect together. Gabel was guttural, while Bowman’s voice soared thanks to his impossibly kickass lungs.
AM!’s live show has started to scale back from New Wave material, with only six songs from that album showing up. New Wave was still clearly a heavy influence on the set list, but more material from Reinventing Axl Rose worked into the show, including “Walking Is Still Honest,” “Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious…” and “Reinventing Axl Rose.” Searching for a Former Clarity got some love via “Miami,” “Pretty Girls (The Mover),” “From Her Lips to God’s Ears (The Shaker)” and “Don’t Lose Touch.”
While I enjoyed Against Me!’s main set for its better blend of material past and present, it was the band’s encore that really did it for me. Not that I’m criticizing them, but the group’s live show has become somewhat standardized for a band that tours so frequently. As much as I love New Wave, I’ve heard those songs so many times in the last year and a half. I’d be happy to hear “Problems,” let alone a rarity like “Wagon Wheel” or “Gypsy Panther.” Luckily, Gable delivered in the end.
Gabel is set to tour solo with Hot Water Music’s Chuck Ragan, Avail’s Tim Barry, and Lucero’s Ben Nichols for “The Revival Tour” this month, but that outing won’t hit Philly. Perhaps that’s why Gabel started the encore with “Cowards Sing at Night,” from his upcoming solo EP Heart Burns. He didn’t really explain the lyrics too much, but with a line like “Come back home Johnny / Come back home from Vietnam,” it’s kind of hard not to see the tune as an anti-John McCain song. Anyone who wants to protest the “maverick” who can’t figure out how many houses he owns, let alone how to fix our economy or bring our troops home or use a computer, is OK in my book. The dug-up corpse of Ronald Reagan cannot save you now, buck-o.
The band came out after “Cowards” to perform “The Disco Before the Breakdown,” which I have never heard live before. So, that was kind of cool. The instrumental sections sounded a little empty without any horns, but who cares? Fast-forward to show-ender “We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules).” After a hard-hitting one-hour set, the band finished its four-song encore strong, delivering one of the best numbers they’ve ever written. There was plenty of grinning and clapping throughout, and the audience finally went off for a little bit. At no point during the show did the floor go insane, but “We Laugh at Danger” gave the crowd a nice shot of adrenaline. I mustered up what was left of my voice and screamed every line back to the band, connected with every other person in the venue through music. And then Prince’s “Purple Rain” came on over the loudspeaker.