Review Summary: Average first half made up for by great second half. Still not as good as the exhilarating real thing though.
An Against Me! live record was always going to be an interesting proposition. Riding a crest of a wave from 2005's 'Searching For A Former Clarity', our folk-punk heroes were derided by their 'hardcore punk' fanbase and disowned for 'selling out', and welcomed with opened arms by the wider audience. With the live record being released on Fat Wreck Chords, it doesnt seem to be a heavy marketing ploy by new label Sire so the benefit of the doubt should be given. And it is no doubting that Against Me! are in their element as a live band; the uplifting feeling you get from their records transfers straight over to the live situation, and in a venue like the Mean Fiddler, which is quite intimate, you are shouting along to every word that Tom, James and Andrew (and occasionally Warren) are screaming down their mics at you and pumping your fist in the air. It's true that to Against Me!'s fans, the band means so much to them, and if you attend an Against Me! gig you will soon realise why. And I was lucky enough to be front row for this very show, getting showered in Tom Gabel's sweat.
And listening to the record which I was waiting so long for since it was announced, it strikes me just how different the live album sounds to the show. This is especially concerning opener 'From Her Lips To Gods Ears'. On the night the band ran out to their intro tape and blasted straight through the song but transfered to record it sounds sludgy and slow. Live the band were tight and and exciting from the start but for some reason on record they seem to stumble during 'From Her Lips To Gods Ears' and 'Rice and Bread'. Still, once 'Reinventing Axl Rose' kicks in you forget the previous tracks and are straight back in the room. The title track from their debut full-length is still as potent as it was four years ago and is still a call-to-arms for punks everywhere (in spite of current views on the band). The crowd come in during the 'woah' bits and the song is just awesome. It then segues straight to the only new track on the record, 'Americans Abroad. I can't even remember this from the night, and the crowd sound more sterile here than on the rest of the record as it is a new track no one knows. But the live record serves up a great sound compared to the unrecognisable mish mash I originally heard. In fact the track is actually great, built on a simple riff and a two chord chorus, with excellent lyrics. The song is made all the more clearer due to its inclusion. From this point onwards the record gets going and the band are flying, and you can hear it on the record. The crowd grow more and more vocal and the band more and more forceful during the infamous clapping part in 'Those Anarch Punks Are Mysterious...'; and through 'Don't Lose Touch'. When the mid-point of the record is reached with crowd favourite 'Sink, Florida, Sink', you can practically feel the crowd's anticipation as Tom Gabel strokes out a C chord on his rickenbacker before blasting into the song with a full crowd right behind him. It is about here that you realise that Against Me! are just a phenomenal live band. It is difficult to really come across live over a record but somehow Against Me! make you shout along punching the air to the beat on your own in your room. Yep, they are THAT good. Forget sell-out this, major label that,poor record the other, taken right down to basics and put in their element Against Me! are just awesome.
It gets better too, as by the second half of the set it is crowd favourites all the way, without the distraction of new songs and without the set slowing down with weaker cuts from 'Searching For A Former Clarity' (seriously, you find room for 'Miami' and 'Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners', but no 'Even At Our Worst We're Better Than Most'? Ah well). Three cuts from 'As The Eternal Cowboy' turn up, including 'T.S.R', followed with a supercharged 'Problems'. So Tom Gabel has said his thanks it's left to 'Pints Of Guiness Make You Strong' to end the set. It is difficult to pick a best song off the record but 'Pints Of Guiness Make You Strong' is definitely up there and it's a highly charged smash through what was already a briliant song. It builds up with muted pick scratches and bashes its way to Andrew Seward picking the remnant notes on his bass to estatic cheers from the crowd. And so they exit stage right, leaving us with a crowd screaming and chanting. And in a truly spine-tingling moment on record, the crowd strike up a "Cli-che Gueva-ra!" chant which then fades into an overlapping "A-GAINST-ME! A-GAINST-ME!" chant.And they return, striking some chords before powering into the requested 'As The Eternal Cowboy' song. And as that fades out there is only one song that can bring the set to a fitting close - 'We Laugh At Danger (And Break All The Rules)'. And annoyingly just as the CD reaches it's climax the live environment to live recording crossover stutters as the conversion just can't deal with the experience of clapping you're hands and screaming "MARY! THERE IS NO HOPE FOR US! IF THIS GM VAN DONT MAKE IT ACROSS THE FRONTLINE WE MIGHT AS WELL LAY DOWN AND DIE!" to the four Gainsville punks who are standing on the edge of the stage screaming the lyrics back into your face.
Overall, the package is a good one. I mean, you get a video of 'Problems' thrown into the mix too which is a nice bonus. The CD acts as a (kind-of) best of and collects most of the key Against Me! songs in one place. There's always going to be a grumble from those of us who would have liked certain tracks featured ('Even At Our Worst We're Better Than Most' and 'Walking Is Still Honest' spring to mind) but as an overall collection it is a good one and there are no really duff versions of songs here. On a side note it is also nice to see 'As The Eternal Cowboy' being the focal point, with 7 tracks included, as it is often overlooked in favour of the classic 'Reinventing Axl Rose' or the more accessible 'Searching For A Former Clarity'. Ok, the first half fluctuates in quality but the strong second half makes up for this and alhough sometimes the recording dips low in comparison to the live experience ('From Her Lips To Gods Ears'), when they get it right they really get it spot on.