It’s Wed., Nov. 19, and I’m standing about 15 feet away from Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel as he sets up merch for his show at The Barbary in Philadelphia. He’s distracted, so I think I could give him a wet willy. I could be the one millionth fan to ask him why he signed to a major label. I could try to go “buddy-buddy” and make some sort of reference to his blog -- a Curb Your Enthusiasm quote might earn a laugh -- or maybe bring up a band we both like. I wonder what he thinks about the new Mountain Goats record? He mentioned liking Tallahassee in an interview once. Or, I can wait for him to move away from the merch table so I can buy a copy of his new 7” (on clear vinyl!) from his wife, Heather. Arguably one of the most important artists in punk rock in the last 10 years, I sheepishly tell her I like her work. She seems legitimately flattered and smiles. Smile achieved, I get the fuck out of there before I say something stupid.
The show starts a little after 7 P.M. Emilyn Brodsky opens the show with a combination of ukele and wit. She messes up a lot of chords and belches during songs; I think she’s nervous and/or buzzed. But she does a great cover of the Cure’s “Friday, I’m in Love.” Her sound is warm and slightly folky -- think a punker version of Mirah, I suppose -- and she keeps her set down to a half-hour. Later, she'll dance and crowd surf. She's clearly having more fun than most.
Gabel goes on around 8 P.M. and opens with a song he just wrote a few days ago, “Bob Dylan’s Dream #12 35.” It’s in line with the material from his new EP, Heart Burns, which got a lot of play, in that it’s acoustic and doesn’t quite sound like Against Me!. The song’s story revolves around Gabel meeting Dylan in a dream and talking to him about everything except his music career. They go to thrift stores, they race toy cars -- it’s beautiful. It also makes me very glad I didn’t ask Tom about Sire Records because there is no way this song is not an allegory.
The set is going really well. It starts off with the new songs, but Tom soon starts digging through his library. Sure, we get “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong” and “Sink, Florida, Sink,” but the true gems are “I Still Love You Julie,” “Walking Is Still Honest,” and “What We Worked For.” With just guitar and vocals, the sound is perfect, and Gabel’s voice still sounds charged. He flubs a few chords here and there, but it doesn’t matter; the crowd is so excited to be there. No one moshes per se, but there is some aggressive swaying going on. Gabel pulls out his cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” from Fat Wreck’s Protect compilation, which is significant because (A) it's regionally appropriate due to the line about a “trucker out of Philly,” (B) it was partially written by the aforementioned Bob Dylan, (C) I’ve never heard this song live before and (D) this cover is totally righteous. Reasons C and D also apply to a stirring performance of “8 Full Hours of Sleep.” “Joy” also goes over huge with the crowd.
Near the end of the set, fans storm the stage, which I haven’t seen since before Searching for a Former Clarity came out. Gabel is now completely surrounded by excited, slightly sweaty people. He cannot even get back to his guitar case, let alone leave the stage, so he keeps playing. He plays “Tonight We’re Going to Give it 35%,” from the The Disco Before the Breakdown EP, and it’s thoroughly awesome. I’m on stage and everyone is screaming the words back at Gabel. This is a unitive moment. After the hour-long set ends, I’m asked not to bother Tom, which is not unitive and kind of alienating given what just happened. But for one hour, I “sang along to the songs I never had the courage to write.” I walk back to my car. It’s 9 P.M.