For a few years, I went to shows 2 or 3 times a week (the heyday of HCT). I live in Nashville, so something’s always playing somewhere. For a few concurrent years, I worked in a venue that has live music every night.
I confess: I got a little burned out. Like all good things, you can even have too much live music. I hate being at a bar where a unique experience is possible and I’m not genuinely appreciating it. I’m now extremely selective. Even if I really love a band, sometimes I’ll skip a show if I’ve seen them before.
I’ve been anticipating the new Against Me! album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues—so much excitement that I got the release date wrong. Then last week while disconsolately browsing, I discovered that Against Me! was already on tour and in my fair city on Sunday night. I fretted. I pouted. I am old and must be at work far too early on Monday to manage a late Sunday show. Then, miraculously, for the first time my work gave me Monday off for MLK day.
I immediately bought tickets and anticipated the Against Me! show all weekend. I invited friends. Both my first and second invitees ended up too busy working to go with me and no one spoke up in the desperate round of texts I sent at the last minute. I decided to go alone. Sigh. And then I started my period. At 8:45, before a 9:00 show, I was sitting on the couch crampy, dejected and ready to eat the cost of the tickets. But I rallied, put on a clean shirt and tie, swiped on a little lipstick, and drove over the river.
I knew I’d made the right decision immediately. Inside the door were eager young men desperate for one more ticket. Hooray, I had one! They bounced around me like happy puppies, and into the crush of the sold-out show we went. Drink in hand, I found a place to stand with pretty good view. I missed the first act because of my wibbling, but the second opening band, The Sidekicks, was great. By the time Against Me! came on, I had shifted to an excellent spot: a great view and no one crashing into me.
I’ve been to shows alone, but it’s always when I know the band, where I run into people I know. This time, I didn’t even look for people I knew. The room was packed and dark, and I settled to focus entirely on the stage. It was so good: no friends talking through unknown but good opening bands, no wrangling over who’s going to the bar. Isn’t that what happens when you’re out with friends? Even when you’re busy watching the band, there’s all this peripheral activity. Can they get you a drink? Is someone going to the bathroom? Did we lose someone? No, she’s over there talking. Is everyone okay? Is anyone too drunk? It’s always something. But at the show alone I finally felt like I was able to really pay attention and whoa, did I pick the right show to finally be present for.
Laura Jane Grace is charismatic and electrifying on stage. I’ve never been so engaged in a performance or felt so emotionally connected to a performer. She seems so happy to be performing and I felt so happy to be receiving that performance, grinning like a fool every time she smiled. Without hyperbole, this was a transcendent, life-changing experience for me and I couldn’t have done it any way but alone.
I rediscovered what I’d been missing from live music—not just enjoying the music and performance, but the sense that I’m living through a unique experience. A door opened to a room I’d forgotten was in my house, a space filled with feeling and music. A large, lost piece of myself has been wedged back in place.
You’re sitting there thinking, “But Cricket, what about the damn music? Is this entire post about you?”
Well, friend, here it is: The music is a fucking emotional chainsaw, ripping right through your soul. The songs tap straight into a base sense that something isn’t right in the world, in ourselves. The rage, isolation and despair that so many people feel comes through the music, raw and incredibly intense.
The songs are new on this album, but many have been performed for awhile now. The audience seemed to know all of them from shows or advance album copies or the magic of the internet. After the show, jonesing for more, I spent an hour on YouTube finding recent performances so I could get more of that potent fix. (Here’s some for you: Dead Friend, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, Unconditional Love.)
As I write this, I have the album on repeat. Transgender Dysphoria Blues is a love letter to those dark places that you manage to rise above. Like all Against Me! albums, it speaks to my rage and sense of injustice, but this time it’s more personal, because this album leaves me feeling understood. It’s a spectacular feat for a songwriter to take something as personal as gender dysphoria and make it universally accessible.
Laura Jane Grace managed to put hope into every single song. I wept through my first full listen to the album and came through ready to get up and fight, get up and face the world again. I feel an undercurrent of joy through all the bleakness of this album. But then again, after seeing Grace on stage being as she was born to be, experiencing her incredibly joyous energy, maybe some of her joy stuck with me.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues is available for a listen on NPR.
You can buy it everywhere now, but I suggest buying it from the band.