Inside The Sinclair, a live-music venue and gastropub in Cambridge, the soft glow of Christmas lights illuminated the stage while fans stood in small groups, holding cups of beer.
Opener Dave Dondero stood alone onstage with his red acoustic guitar. With his thoughtful music and quiet demeanor, he had the air of someone who has been in the business for a long time. He’s a storyteller comparable to Dan Bern and Bob Dylan.
After Dondero’s short set, Laura Jane Grace and The Devouring Mothers came onstage. Grace is the frontwoman of punk band Against Me!. Her backing band, The Devouring Mothers, consists of bassist Marc Hudson and drummer Atom Willard.
They opened with “Ache With Me,” a slow, sad number from the album “White Crosses.”
“That is the most-hated Against Me! song,” Grace said as the song ended. “I know because I’ve been told.”
She shrugged and continued, “I figured the show could only get better from here.”
The song and Grace’s comments signified that this would not be a regular Against Me! show. At regular shows, the band members rarely speak. They usually just play the songs, plain and simple.
However, Grace explained that this evening would include not only music but also readings from the tour diary she’s kept over the past twenty-or-so years.
The excitement in the room was palpable.
Even though this wasn’t a regular show, it wasn’t any less intense. Grace’s diary entries and music covered a variety of subjects including the band’s experiences with major record labels, her two failed marriages and her struggle with gender dysphoria.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Grace described gender dysphoria as “a feeling of detachment from your body and from yourself.” She came out as transgender in 2012.
Grace pours an incredible amount of honesty into her work. She closed the reading of an emotional entry with the line, “I will never be anything but a pervert dressing up in women’s clothing.”
Watching her, the distance between the Grace in her diary and the Grace at the concert was surprising. In the diary, she seemed unsure and unhappy. Onstage, she seemed fearless and confident.
As the night continued, she joked with the crowd and even accepted a plastic cup full of beer from a fan standing near the stage.
The setlist was fantastic. They played songs from most of Against Me!’s albums and Grace’s solo release, “Heart Burns.”
Some exact phrases from her diary could be heard in the song lyrics, and knowing their context made them all the more impactful.
The standouts included: “Pretty Girls (The Mover)” with lyrics updated to reflect Grace’s gender dysphoria, the songs “Harsh Realms” and “Conceptual Paths” from “Heart Burns,” and “Two Coffins,” a dark, pensive song that Grace wrote for her daughter.
They dedicated a cover of “I Keep Forgetting” by Michael McDonald to Grace’s first wife, and performed a cover of “Androgynous” by 1980s punk band The Replacements.
The three-piece band gave these songs a captivating new sound. Songs that normally had a fuller sound with two electric guitars, bass and drums were stripped down, and normally acoustic songs were amped up.
Before the final song, Grace talked about why she put this show together in the first place.
“I’m reading the things that make me feel the most vulnerable in front of the people I am most afraid of,” she revealed.
In doing so, she said that she wanted to empower not only herself but also those in the crowd. “I hope you all leave here tonight with a sense of empowerment,” she continued.
The crowd cathartically shouted along to “Black Me Out,” the angry anthem that closes their latest album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.”
With the lights shining across the venue, everyone could see each other. The atmosphere at the end of the set was electric.
The band came back for a short encore, starting with a haunting cover of “I Want You” by Elvis Costello. Then, they invited Dave Dondero back onstage to play “Twenty Years,” Grace’s favorite song of his. She told the story of the first time the two of them played together in a laundromat in Gainesville, Florida, and apologized for always asking him to play this song.
They played “Cavalier Eternal,” Grace’s least favorite Against Me! song, and closed with “We Did It All for Don.”
The vocals the fans provided, sloppy but enthusiastic, sounded just like the crowd vocals on the recording. The song ended the night perfectly.
Whether you’re an old Against Me! fan or hearing about them for the first time, it’ll be worth going to see Laura Jane Grace the next time she’s in town.