Laura Jane Grace sat down with an acoustic guitar in front of a music stand. It was Valentine’s Day in Washington, DC, and she was on stage at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue to play stripped down versions of Against Me! songs, her long-time band.
Backed by her band’s drummer Atom Willard, she opened with Ache With Me, an often derided song from 2010’s White Crosses. The derision was a fact Grace acknowledged, but in a way where she made it known that she didn’t care; it was her song and they were her words, so she was going to open with it.
This set the stage for an entertaining and emotional evening. She then took it back to the beginning, telling the story behind, and then playing a fan favorite, Pints of Guinness Makes You Stronger, from 2002’s Reinventing Axl Rose. This is normally the point in an Against Me! show where the crowd would be jumping and shouting along. But we were all seated in pews in a Synagogue, and the guitar was acoustic, so the crowd quietly sang along with smiles on their faces.
For the rest of the show, Grace preceded each song with a reading out of her journal (which would go on to become a 2017 book entitled Tranny). She highlighted entries that directly influenced the forthcoming song. It painted an intimate portrait of herself and where her life was when she wrote the songs. Many of the entries and songs focused on the period between 2004 and 2007. Major labels were courting the band, one of which they would eventually sign. They toured heavily, many fans called them sellouts, and all the while Grace was secretly experiencing a struggle with gender identity.
As the timeline moved from the mid-album, major label era, and into the Laura Jane Grace stage of the band, we heard tear-jerking stories. Having to remain quiet as others around her were making jokes about transvestites. Her decision to squash her issues and “be a man,” which included getting married and having a daughter. The final straw, where she found herself secretly buying women’s clothing, and checking into seedy hotels to wear them, all the while hiding this from her wife. Eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore, and “came out,” making the personal and public decision to go on as Laura-Jane Grace, rather than Tom Gabel.
Grace seemed happy to share these stories with the fans and even acknowledged that she’s a bit of a narcissist. Nevertheless, she told the crowd she felt it was important to get it out there and for the fans to understand. If it could help those who may be struggling with similar issues, she told the audience, it was worth it. She shared that she wasn’t necessarily talking about gender issues either; any issues with self-worth, self-doubt, not knowing who you are, and feeling lost in general.
For fans of a raucous Against Me! show, the venue was a pleasant change. Rather than play a loud bar where fans might be talking over her readings at the bar, she chose to play this historic synagogue, where fans sat and were mostly quiet, allowing Grace to go through her set list. The opportunity to listen to the stories and hear stripped-down versions of the songs allowed fans to see them from a different view.
For fans new and old, it was a special evening.