Tom Gabel of Against Me! performs live at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn.
Tom Gabel of Against Me! performs live at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn. Wills Glasspiegel/NPR
In 2002, I was more or less done with punk rock. It wasn't so much scene politics or the strangely fashionable lack of personal hygiene — the music just didn't matter to me anymore. It felt as if we were just being given three chords and a sneer that seemed more like a self-serving grin. But then a friend dragged me to Finley House (RIP) in Athens, Ga., to see Against Me! play to sweaty, packed and drunken living room.
With an acoustic guitar and a ragged voice, Tom Gabel and his band (a bassist and drummer) shouted anarchist confessionals as the tiny room pulsated. (In fact, I was pushed out the back door as three people fell on top of me.) There was an urgency and an honesty I hadn't quite experienced before — a songwriter frustrated with his surroundings, his government and, more importantly, his own art. To this day, "What We Worked For" remains the anguished epitome of Gabel in that cross-section of his musical life.
But now it's eight years later, and Against Me! is big enough to pack the "This" tent at Bonnaroo. Gabel abandoned his beat-up acoustic for an electric guitar and a full band long ago; his supporting players now include former Hold Steady keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Punks cried foul at first, maybe the same way studded-leather-jacketed kids felt when The Clash started selling out arenas. Many of them still haven't forgiven Gabel for moving to a major label, disowning parts of his past and playing to a younger and often suburban audience.
The rough-hewn edges are gone and the songs are poppier, but as I realized while watching, Against Me! has always been a band about growing up. That doesn't mean that a set list that includes a reflective and reactionary new song ("I Was a Teenage Anarchist") and an older idealist anthem ("Baby, I'm an Anarchist") make Gabel any less complicated of a musical persona. It just means that "being punk" is complicated, set against youthful fervor and the realization that nothing's quite so black and white.