(One of the) Best of 2012: Laura Jane Grace’s Santa Cruz Debut, September

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As a music writer, I get asked about favorites a lot. Mostly by people who don’t know me that well: my parents’ friends, for example, or dudes who are trying to hit on me. “Who’s your favorite band?” “What’s your favorite album?” “What kind of music do you like?”

I hate these questions. I’m not saying people shouldn’t ask me this — they’re just being nice, after all — but I am SO BAD at coming up with definite, final, irrevocable answers like that. I’m always afraid I’ll say something that I’ll change my mind on later, or worse, something that will make me look incredibly uncool. Also — and I’m sure other music geeks will back me up on this — favorite albums, bands, shows just don’t exist. I have more than a handful of artists, works and experiences that I love intensely, and all for very different reasons. I can’t say one is the best or even that one is better than the other. It’s not fair to me or the bands.

So when The Bay Bridged (oh hey, by the way, I write for The Bay Bridged now) asked us bloggers for our picks for best of the year, I panicked a little. I had plenty of great experiences working for them that year, but don’t make me choose! And please don’t make me reveal my own personal tastes! I’ve become very comfortable in my little fly-on-the-wall role as a writer these last few years; so much so that writing about myself as a person now makes me a little squeamish. But I wanted to contribute something, so I pitched them a piece about my friend and colleague Eric Fanali‘s Sixteenth Anniversary show back in August — one of the most exhilarating live experiences I’ve had this year.

I banged the piece out in about an hour. I’ll be honest: when I finished it, I didn’t love it. It felt a little indulgent, like it would really only appeal to me, Eric and other people that like to pretend they’re still sixteen, but hey, they can’t all be my best work. And if you’ll permit me to get a little braggy here, even my sub-par stuff is still better than a lot of the other garbage that’s out there in the blogosphere.

Anyway, it wasn’t until a few days later that I realized…

Laura Jane Grace.

As I’m sure it was for a lot of people, hearing about Tom Gabel’s transition to Laura Jane Grace earlier this year was a big surprise to me. My first thought was…well, OK, my VERY first and very selfish thought was, “What a damn shame, he’s so hot.” My second thought was, “I hope the band survives.”

Because you just never know with these things. I knew enough about Tom and Against Me! to know that they would likely keep going and the band itself wouldn’t implode, at least not immediately. But that’s a major, major change for any person in any relationship to go through. And who knew how the fans would react. Punk is known for being open and accepting, but it’s also known for being a pretty macho scene that might draw the line on the whole “open and accepting” thing at something like this.

To my astonishment, the fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive. For some odd and very encouraging reason, the Internet put its troll tendencies aside for her. When the news broke, I fully expected the reaction to be a melee of knee-jerk moral outrage and grade-school taunting. Instead they showered Grace with kind words and bountiful encouragement. A good sign indeed.

Near the end of the summer this year, I was logged into Facebook and saw an ad on my right margin that announced that Against Me! was coming to Santa Cruz, which is about 30 minutes away from me. This was my chance to find out for myself if the band was likely to survive or not. I messaged my cousin Megan and we made plans to check it out. (Let this also go down in history as the only time that a Facebook ad has ever worked so directly on me.)

We got there a little early so we could stuff our faces with Taqueria Vallarta before the show, watching hoodie-clad teenagers queue up at the venue, just across the street from the taqueria. I felt weird about it: I’m 26. Should I really be hanging out at shows that draw mostly 17-year-olds? But I had already bought the tickets and dragged Megan all the way down there, so whatever. We finished up and got in line.

It was apparent almost as soon as we walked in that yes, I should be hanging out here. I was lucky enough to catch Against Me! back in 2009 on their surprise tour stop in San Jose, a date that was subbed in at the last minute to replace a cancelled show at Gilman. Against Me! had always been a band that I liked fine and that I really respected, but they were never quite appealing enough to me, for whatever reason, for me to fully embrace them. Seeing them live changed that. They were raw and powerful and commanding and everything a live band should be. It was a beautiful, galvanizing experience, and it’s in that top tier of best — favorite, if you will — concert experiences for me.

This time around, as I had predicted, things were different — after all, Against Me! essentially had a new leader. But you know what? They were still fucking incredible and it was still one of the single best live shows I have ever seen. I went into it as objectively as possible – again, a byproduct of my line of work. I was really conscious of not letting my personal want to support her as a transgender person interfere with my opinion of them musically. And from a completely professional, unbiased standpoint, I would like to formally say that Against Me! still fucking rocks. I feel silly for every doubting them. They were still raw and powerful and commanding like I remembered, but instead of coming out spewing rage and condemnation (and I say that with love; rage and condemnation is an important component of a functioning democratic society), they played with…hope. It was weird: they were playing the exact same songs as last time, but it seemed to come from (and play to) a completely different part of the brain this time around. As soon as the lights dimmed after the third opener, they came almost bounding onto the stage. Grace herself was just beaming. Beaming. They’re a whole new band, but are still a fucking force.

(Also, on an unapologetically shallow note, can we talk about how SUPER-HOT she has been looking lately? Sheesh.)

So how can I wrap this? The only thing I can say is — and I hope I’m right about this — things are really changing out there. If I can hope for something myself, it’s that the instantaneous acceptance of Grace’s arrival is a very, very good sign for the world. Day by day, we’re inching closer and closer to the kind of world I would like to live in. Not that this one isn’t the kind of world I would like to live in, but there are still many things I’d like to see change. Let’s see how far we get in 2013.

I know you’ve said you don’t want to be treated as a hero, Laura Jane (is it Laura Jane or just Laura?) but I would still just like to say go you. I want to meet you some day. Maybe next time you’re in Santa Cruz, we can stuff our faces at Taqueria Vallarta before the show.