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Review: Against Me! kicks off friendly, familial Big Pre-Fest in Little Ybor

By Jay Cridlin
Jay Cridlin
Against Me! performed at Big Pre-Fest in Little Ybor on Oct. 25, 2017.

Tacked up above Against Me!'s merch table on Wednesday at the Orpheum was a hand-scrawled plea on a sheet of rumpled cardboard: "We need weed -- or Laura will die!"

Seeing as how Laura Jane Grace was still standing at the end of Night 1 of Big Pre-Fest in Little Ybor, Against Me!'s buds in Florida must have been pretty kind.

But then, what else would you expect from what's quietly become one of the punk world's friendliest, most familial traditions?

For the fifth straight year, the two days leading up to Gainesville's Fest have brought dozens of punk and indie bands to clubs across Ybor City, a sort of ice-breaking soirée for hundreds of far-flung punks in denim vests and Fat Wreck Chords tees. It was an intimate punk love-in before the bacchanalian orgy up north, and as Gainesville's raging, righteous ambassadors to the world, Against Me! was the perfect host.

In the first of two straight headlining nights, Against Me! looked excited to be playing their first Pre-Fest. Spinning, kicking and beaming beneath her stringy, sweat-soaked mane, Grace had a giddy-up gallop in her step from opening track Pints of Guinness Make You Strong, from their 2002 debut Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose.

Against Me! is playing Axl Rose in full at Fest, and their two Pre-Fest shows are being used to work out some of the kinks of songs they haven’t played in years – or in some cases, Grace sad, never at all in their current lineup. But those they did play got a huge response, including Jordan’s 1st Choice, We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules) and the gloriously gleeful Those Anarcho Punks are Mysterious.

They also dropped in a rarity from the Axl Rose era, the early single The Disco Before the Breakdown ("I apologize in advance if I f--- this song up; you know this one better than us," Grace said). But when they got through it with enormous energy intact, bassist Inge Johansson raised his fists in triumph.

From the roaring Rebecca to the glammy Black Me Out to the pedal-pushing I Was a Teenage Anarchist, Grace’s performance was full-throttle and frenetic from start to finish, which might be why a constant stream of stage-divers surged up alongside her to jump back down into the pit. She encouraged everyone there to be who they are and do what they feel like, dedicating Transgender Dysphoria Blues to "anyone that feels uncomfortable in their own skin, anyone who feels "isolated and alienated."

"For the next three minutes, I want us to push away this flaming f---ing garbage can we call reality, and just exist right here," she said.

By "here," she might as well have been talking about Florida. Several songs throughout their set referenced the state, including Sink Florida Sink, Miami and We Laugh at Danger (And Break All the Rules).

Against Me! was by far the biggest band present on Wednesday -- Thursday's better lineup also features Beach Slang, the Lillingtons, Rainer Maria, Smoking Popes and You Blew It! -- and so Wednesday offered a little more of a spotlight for top Tampa Bay talent.

Costumed, cartoonish punks Wolf-Face shut down the Crowbar stage, while over at the Dirty Shame Awkward Age, who dedicated their song Figurehead as "a big middle finger to Richard Spencer for coming to speak at UF," said singer Vic Alvarez "and a big thumbs up for everyone who showed up to tell him to eff off." And evocative indie rockers DieAlps!, whose excellent new album Our City deserves every spotlight it can get, got to play a few of those songs for fans from far and wide.

Other national bands offered their own highlights, from deep dips into their catalogs to twists on their usual sets.

Singer-guitarist Caleb Cordes played a solo, heartfelt, "very adult contemporary version" of his indie rock band Sinai Vessel's music at Tequilas. Later in the same space, London emocore outfit Apologies, I Have None drew an intensely passionate crowd screaming every word. At the Orpheum, Off With Their Heads tossed fun-size candy from plastic jack-o'-lantern buckets during anthemic, rage-along closer Clear the Air. And for one intense 30-second blast of fury, neck-snapping punks Teenage Bottlerocket instructed the Orpheum crowd to pogo "Like we're Propagandhi and it's 1994," said singer Kody Templeman, and it more or less worked.

And Michigan ska veterans Mustard Plug played a 20th-anniversary, full-album performance of their LP Evildoers Beware! -- their last such performance ever, they said -- to an eager set of skankers in the pit.

"This is our sixth Fest, maybe?" said Mustard Plug singer Dave Kirchgessner. "Five or six? Who's counting, really?"

The guys from Direct Hit! were -- it was their fifth, and they did so with singer Nick Woods wearing a Tom Petty and the Headtbreakers shirt. He has good reason for the Gainesville love -- the raucous Milwaukee pop-punk group's first Fest years ago, when they played opposite Lagwagon and still drew a packed crowd at the now defunct club 1982, was "maybe a top 5 coolest thing that has ever happened to me."

On all four stages at Pre-Fest 5, that was the sentiment of the night.

"This is the only good thing that's going to happen for a while," Off With Their Heads singer Ryan Young told fans at the Orpheum, "so do your best to take it home with you."

No need: It's happening all over again on Thursday.

Click here for details.

-- Jay Cridlin