Live albums come in a few different flavours; there are those that are cynical cash-ins on a band’s moment in the spotlight, those that come when the band seem incapable of recording a new studio album, those that are so overdubbed they may as well be a new studio album and those that are so under produced they are almost unlistenable.
Along with these come the very few that sound like they are genuinely intended to capture a moment and do so in a way raw enough to sound live but also well produced enough to be listenable. On their new live album, 23 Live Sex Acts, Against Me! succeed in delivering something that thankfully falls into this latter camp.
Recorded during the 2014 tour for their critically acclaimed Transgender Dysphoria Blues album at the fabulous named ‘Gritty Clit’ in Kiev, Indiana things start as they mean to go on with an insistent, marching drum beat and an announcement from frontwoman Laura Jane Grace stating, very matter of factly, that its time to “Fuck shit up”.
This ‘never mind the bollocks’ attitude is something that has typified Grace’s public demeanour for the last couple of years and its great to hear it here. Whether she’s delivering socially and politically powerful songs, clearly having a good time with the crowd or berating the venue security her presence is astonishing, even in simple audio.
On top of this she delivers a (for to the point punk rock) varied vocal performance that is as impassioned as they come and still retains a hint of the more hardcore style the band’s early albums displayed alongside the cleaner tones of more recent material.
She’s ably backed by her right hand man and guitarist James Bowman who’s the only other member to be with the band since their first album and here provides backing vocals and extra guitar sounds that work to deepen the sound of the songs live so they match those on the more production heavy albums and with bassist Inge Johannson vocals add a gang dynamic to proceedings.
With Johannson’s sped up rock ‘n’ roll bass and Atom Willard’s similarly styled, driving drums, the sound of the band is tight as they come as they deliver a sound that spans pop-punk singalong to distorted noise inflected moments and everything in between.
While the band is as precise as punk rock gets and the songs are one of the finest selections you’ll find, what really makes this album work is its vitality. Throughout the performance is tremendously high energy, as you’d expect, but what really stands out is that the rough edges haven’t been tidied up.
During New Wave, for example, Grace stops the song to challenge security on their attempt to eject someone from the show and, of course, the crowd is on her side, while later on you can hear her voice straining around Osama Bin Laden As The Crucified Christ and How Low both things that on some albums would have been removed or tidied up, but here are left intact and help make the record.
The set list is a career spanning one and as close to a ‘greatest hits’ set as a band with no chart ‘hits’ could get, while also drawing heavily on the latest album. Highlights include Pints of Guinness Make You Strong, True Trans Soul Rebel, High Pressure Low, Black Me Out and the more considered but hugely powerful set closer The Ocean that comes with a new sense of poignancy following Grace’s more recent life events.
A two song encore rounds of the album in upbeat style, including a well captured mass singalong, completing a set that lives up to the reviews of Against Me’s recent gigs and makes for one of the most honest and enjoyable live records I’ve heard.
Photos by Scott Nathanson at SFL Onstage.