Against Me! / Ted Leo + The Pharmacists / Future of the Left
Webster Hall; New York, NY

In the last 5 years, we’ve seen Death Cab for Cutie become a household name; we’ve seen “emo” become a term that people, who weren’t alive when “Friday I’m In Love” came out, apparently know enough about to debate its meaning on their blogs; and bands like The Arcade Fire have seen enough money to seriously call into question the relevance of independent rock ‘n’ roll in 2008.

But thankfully, providence has blessed our wearied ears with a tour lineup of Future of the Left, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Against Me! True, five years have changed these bands as much as anyone else. Mclusky may have broken up and partially reformed as Future of the Left; Ted Leo may have embraced ska and lost his longtime bassist Dave Lerner; and Against Me! may have become a band that you can actually hear on mainstream radio, but for a second at least, this lineup offers a chance to think back on a simpler time: a time when the indie world was riding high on such masterpieces as Mclusky’s Do Dallas (2002), Ted Leo’s The Tyranny of Distance (2001), and Against Me!’s Reinventing Axl Rose (2002).

Future of the Left, with a familiar three-piece lineup and the same lyrical preoccupations and rhythmic immediacy, sounds enough like vintage Mclusky to hold up their side of the bargain in this nostaligic delusion. Following through on the promise of 2007’s Curses, they kicked the ass of an unsuspecting crowd for a full 30 minutes. Songs from Curses (“adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood,” “Small Bones, Small Bodies,” “Manchasm,” and others) took on a new life in the live setting, as the surprisingly intricate vocal interplay between bassist Kelson Mathias and guitarist Andy “Falco” Falkous benefited from the lack of studio glossiness, coming through much more clearly and effectively. The set also included three new songs, including “A Hope That House Built,” and an extended multipart freakout that closed the set with a very un-Mclusky level of psychedelic instrumental abandon.

Perhaps even more entertaining, though, was their witty and crass onstage banter. Falkous’s lyrics, which promote violence and love as two sides of the same coin, may have been too often buried by less-than-stellar mixing, but even if you couldn’t make out his entreaty, from “Small Bones, Small Bodies,” to, “grow into your body happily,” Mathias’ attempt to affably lead the crowd in a cheer dedicated to Leo and Against Me! should have gotten across the band’s perhaps too-often buried sympathetic side. The violence half of the coin, was, of course, covered by Mathias threatening to karate kick a less adoring member of the crowd through the wall into “the venue next door”.

Ted Leo, for his part, opened with faithfully stirring renditions of Tyranny of Distance’s “Timorous Me” and followed it with “Where Have All the Rude Boy’s Gone” from 2003’s Hearts of Oak, giving the momentary impression that maybe nothing had changed at all in the last five years. Of course, he then shattered the illusion by launching into more recent material from Shake the Sheets and Living With the Living. While the newer material, which made up the entirety of the rest of the set, may have lacked the effortless joy of the first two songs, at no point did the show lose a sense of purpose, and Leo, despite his apparent laryngitis, maintained the same level of positive intensity that has become something of a trademark for him. If anything, the fact that Leo was losing his voice and the manner in which he unceremoniously dispatched each tune -- businesslike, but not in a bad way -- supported his claim to the title of hardest working man in independent rock ‘n’ roll.

But Against Me! are the real success story on this bill, having come a long way since Axl Rose. They’ve built a rabid teenage fanbase, who showed up in droves for this show. If you weren’t an under-21 Against Me! freak, you were in the minority here, and that made for a great concert-going experience in a few notable ways. For one, apparently the rule that says you can’t wear a band’s t-shirt to a concert where they’re performing doesn’t apply to Against Me!’s fans. Not only was the crowd lousy with 18-year-old kids wearing all manner of Against Me! apparel -- much of it identical to the items available at the merch table and seemingly very new -- but this seemed like a perfectly natural and reasonable expression of appreciation for the band. Depressing as it is to watch fans of a band far past their prime stroll around outdoor amphitheaters, holding aluminum light beer bottles and wearing the shirt they bought at last year’s tour, emblazoned with the hideous artwork from last years cash-in comeback album, it almost warms the heart to see a young crowd this large show enough devotion to a band this not-shitty to not only stencil the band’s name onto the back of a denim jacket, but to wear such a jacket to the band’s concert and, what’s more, show up three hours before the band even goes on. This sort of positive energy created by younger, more dedicated, and less grizzled fans is only one of the many reasons that all-ages shows -- this one was 16+, but felt all-ages enough -- should be the rule rather than exception in live music.

Unfortunately, the show itself couldn’t live up to the level of excitement stoked by the fan’s expectations. The band performed around a dozen songs, heavily leaning on material from last year’s New Wave, sounding very similar to the versions you’d find on an Against Me! record. The mix was good, the performances were tight, but everything about the music worked towards the impression that what was going on wasn’t much different than listening to the album. Visually, while a large projection of the awesome tiger face from the New Wave artwork was a nice touch, the band did little to differentiate the experience from that of watching one of their music videos on YouTube.

Before this gets too negative, though, let’s get it straight that the point of an Against Me! show, as borne out by the both their performance and the reaction of their fans, isn’t to present a new experience, to expand upon musical ideas laid down in the band’s recordings, or to recontextualize the band’s music. Against Me!’s fans want to hear the songs they know and love, played by the band that they know and love, the way that they know and love. And while these songs are being played, they want to be able to sing along with their friends, dance and brush up against each other, jump up on the stage and crowd surf, or if they’re not brave enough, get their crowd surf kicks vicariously from their fellow fans.

Against Me! delivered this experience in spades. Their songs are perfectly vague (a more brilliantly soothing and meaningless lyric than “Stop/Take some time to think/ Figure out what’s important to you” may never have been written); their music overlooks the conventions of pop punk just enough to feel slightly threatening without actually being threatening, and even the way they look on stage is the precisely prescribed form of anonymous. Tattooed, short hair, black shirts (or no shirts), they visually embody hardcore’s “I’m no more important than you” ethos, albeit while playing songs that, like all good-not-great pop music are unlikely to call anyone’s personal beliefs into question and are fun to sing along with.
Teenage music is often described as angry and rebellious, but, the music that really speaks to the teenage experience is more often closer to Against Me!’s brand of almost pop, almost punk: confrontational at first glance, but essentially amorphous and thus adaptable to the confused and ever-changing concerns of adolescent and post-adolescent life. Against Me!’s teenage fanbase identifies with the band, not necessarily because of who the band is or what they say, but because their image and message is malleable enough that anyone can build an earnest personal connection to it. Whatever the reason, though, the crowd’s devotion was never in question: this show included perhaps the most sincere stage diving I have ever witnessed.

As strong as the urge to relive 2002 might be, the real thrill of this show came from rekindling an adolescent excitement not from remembering that first Ted Leo show you saw where he tore up “The Great Communicator” at the end, but from watching the Against Me! kids go crazy to music that is definitively theirs. In 2002, this still would have been a 16+ show and these kids wouldn’t have gotten in, so why not embrace 2008?

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