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Against Me! SXSW set celebrates life on a night of tragedy

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Erin J. Walter

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 13, 2014

On a night that would come to be marked by tragedy, Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace took a moment between songs to say she is savoring every moment of her life.

“We are very lucky to be here together,” she told a capacity crowd of adoring fans, many of whom had waited outside Red 7 patio for hours to get in. “It’s good to be alive.”

A few blocks north on Red River Street, a vehicle had just plowed through a South by Southwest barricade, killing at least two people and injuring 23. News spread over Twitter after 1 a.m. Thursday, as Against Me! was tearing through its highly anticipated showcase.

The hard-touring Gainesville, Fla. punk band has been playing Austin, including previous SXSW appearances, for over a decade, but the Thursday morning set was some fans’ first chance to sing, jump, and clap along with Grace (formerly Tom Gabel) since she came out as transgender in 2012. The show spanned Against Me!’s six albums, including popular older songs like “Turn Those Clapping Hands into Angry Balled Fists,” but drew heavily from this year’s “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” a catchy album that is nothing short of a heart-on-the-sleeve revolution.

Thursday morning, so many gritty verses seemed timed to the pain and grief down the street. “You should have been a mother. You should have been a wife,” Grace sang on anthem “True Trans Soul Rebel.” “You should have been gone from here years ago. You should be living a different life.”

But the audience was largely unaware of the deaths and responded with the most emotion to lyrics that addressed Grace’s personal and public journey. “Who’s gonna take you home?” they hollered along at the top of their lungs. “Does god bless your transsexual heart?”

Wearing skinny jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt with a photo of a woman’s breasts on it, the tall, tattoo-covered Grace started the show with her long red hair covering her face. But when she lifted the veil after a few songs, she flashed huge smiles, strutting and yanking on the microphone stand, reveling in the joyful energy of the crowd and feeding off the bouncing enthusiasm of new bassist Inge Johansson, formerly of the (International) Noise Conspiracy and Refused.

During one song, Grace reached out to the front row and took a young man’s face in her hands as she sang.

“I love her so much,” he said, turning to friends behind him when the song was over. Fans reached out to touch Grace’s knee through her ripped jeans.

On standout new song “Black Me Out,” the singer/songwriter/guitarist wailed more lyrics that spoke to the night: “All the young graves filled. Don’t the best stars burn out so bright and so fast? Full-body high. I’m never coming down.”

Many disappointed fans of Against Me!, Touche Amore, and other bands on the Brooklyn Vegan-sponsored showcase were turned away from the packed Red 7 patio Wednesday night. Those who made the cut experienced the guitar-slinging, drum-pounding, life-affirming best of SXSW… only to walk out into the night to horrifying news.

Grace stayed, smiling and sitting cross-legged at the edge of the stage as she talked to fans, took photos, and signed set lists. A few hours later, she sent a message to her 46,800 Twitter followers: “My heart goes out to all those involved in and affected by the tragedy tonight at SXSW.”