Against Me! confuses Chicago's Aragon (7/3)

What happened at the Against Me! concert at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago-the day before America turned 234-was something fascinating. It was a kind of an anomaly, and it was kind of gut-wrenchingly sad. The energy in the room was so disparate and dissonant and downright confusing… but let me try to tell you why. But first, here’s some context.

Punk is one of those terms that makes me cringe when I hear it. It’s a word that’s been through the wash too many times that by 2010, I’d rather just do away with it. Maybe it’s because I’m what a lot of punk-rockers would call a “poser”. I stick out like a sore thumb at punk rock shows, opting out of fashion accessories, gauged piercings, mohawks, and combat boots that often supersede the politics of what punk really is. However, I’ve seen SLC Punk once, I think, I’ve listened to Kerplunk once, I think, and I’ve even been to a New Found Glory show. See? Poser.

So heading into Against Me! at the Aragon Ballroom, I was fearing for the worse: I would be an embarrassing castaway in a sea of spiked bracelets, utility kilts, neck tattoos, Lawrence Arms tees, only further solidifying my depressingly meager knowledge of this genre. But as I walked into the venue, there were no such visions of this because a) I know my idea of punk is uber cliché and not at all what it really is and b) most of these people were not here to see Against Me!. Is this the sad, stomach-level sadness that took place here? Not at all. Shoegazers-on-methamphetamine Silversun Pickups were headlining, so most were here to see them. And while it’s a little sad to see a band who has easily six more years touring under their belt get a lower billing, it happens enough to not make a big fuss about it. So a bad beat on billing notwithstanding, why are there so few Against Me! fans here? Turns out they are here, but they are hidden. They eventually show their colors, but pre-show almost everyone looks overwhelmingly “midwestern”, a term too involved to get into here. Just trust me.

Against Me! took the stage underscored by Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and an enthusiastic cheer from the crowd. Lead singer Tom Gabel offered a confident wave, and then dove right into the title track of their latest LP, White Crosses. The first surreal moment came when the mustachioed multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay stepped out on stage. His first gig since departing from The Hold Steady, Nicolay added a unique presence to the band; however, surreal is probably the best way to describe it.

“Pints Of Guinness Make You Stronger” followed next, which has received the Against Me! 2.0 treatment: wall of sound, more harmonies, all gussied up. I looked around to see what mosh pits and ‘bow-throwing this Erin Go Bragh anthem would get started. Nothing. The crowd stood complacent, as Gabel unleashed his cords into the mic.

And so it went. Against Me blistered through 12 anthemic pop-punk sing-alongs while a crowd of just about 800 absorbed their furious energy and turned it into an dismal evening of personal reflection and misconnection. I said earlier that perhaps people weren’t here to see Against Me!, but this wasn’t true. People were here to see Against Me!, but not the one that is on stage giving a polished, stadium-ready performance. The guy behind me stared at his feet as he sung the words to “High Pressure Low”. Two guys to the right of me knew all of the lyrics to almost every song, but refused to show any amount of enjoyment as their gaze turned from blasé to threatening by the end of the show. A couple people mocked rocking out. The line at the bar got bigger. People were embarrassed for the band and themselves.

By all accounts, Against Me! should have torn the roof off the place. Songs like “I Was A Teenage Anarchist” sounded so irresistibly genuine and powerful I forewent any sort of note taking and sung along with Gabel, whose pipes could raze a small village. “Rapid Decompression” actually got the crowd going for a minute or two (literally), only to have the bottom fall out shortly thereafter. “Suffocation” was eerily received with more crossed arms than most other songs, even though it’s one of their best new tracks.

It was about at “Bamboo Bones” when it hit me: No one knows who this fucking band is. Those who’ve never heard Against Me! sure as shit can’t sing along to a shout-chorus they don’t know. (Side note: There’s nothing worse and more awkward than a shout-chorus gone un-shouted.) Those die-hard pre-New Wave fans watched the band with the same dazed stupor they’d have watching their favorite sports team get pulverized by their rival. What’s left are the handful of semi-newbies who hopped on the train at New Wave or White Crosses, all of whom look overwhelmingly young and midwestern and boring.

By this point, you could read the band’s reticence to play hard, and Tom Gabel kept hacking away at the audience, but he couldn’t get to them. Set closer “Sink Florida, Sink” showed the first signs of resignation for the band. Nicolay was staring off into the middle distance and Gabel’s physical rawness gave way to emotional exhaustion. The last note was hit, and the band threw up a less-confident wave and all but ran off stage. The force with which Gable handed his guitar to the guitar tech equaled about 4,000 slamming doors.

As the lights went up, there were shrugs, rolled eyes, and “fuck this” sentiments. Some, including this reviewer, thought Against Me! delivered a massively engaging and all-around solid rock show, but all that was overshadowed by the crowd’s disturbing hesitancy. It was creepily Kubrickian the way the band’s sound washed over everyone, creating only an occasional smile. Their call to arms fell on deaf ears, and whether it was the commander or the foot-soldiers’ fault is still up for debate. I’d say it’s a little of both. The crowd and the band were like ships in the night, and at a rock show, that’s tragically depressing.

Two last observations:

  • Openers The Henry Clay People are going to be incredible in a couple years. They’re the cream of frat rock, led by two shaggy-haired brothers that sound like a cleaned up Titus Andronicus or an amped up Mountain Goats.
  • Headliners the Silversun Pickups are great live (click here for evidence). They put on a show, they are humble, they smile a bunch, and they visibly enjoy the hell out of playing their songs. That being said, drummer Christopher Guanlao needs to learn what a “pocket” is and “find it” far more often. When he does (“The Royal We”), the energy coheres and explodes out. When he doesn’t (many, many other songs), he’s the cork in the bottle. You have more snare hits than Drumline. Ease off, bro.

Click here to view more of Meghan Brosnan’s work.

Against Me! setlist:
White Crosses
Pints of Guinness Make You Strong
Thrash Unreal
Rapid Decompression
I Was A Teenage Anarchist
High Pressure Low
White People For Peace
Bamboo Bones
New Wave
Sink, Florida, Sink

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