Laura Jane Grace wasn’t planning on playing any shows this summer, but then she got an opportunity too enticing to turn down.
“‘Heck, yes I do,” the Chicago-based songwriter and guitarist remembers thinking when asked if she wanted to headline at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Northeast Philadelphia. “It just seemed brilliant on so many levels, but also kind of healing in a weird way,” said Grace, founder and front woman of the punk rock band Against Me!
The gig was proposed by Philadelphia promoter Dave Kiss, who has booked Grace for a show in the parking lot where then-President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani held a press conference last November.
Grace will play solo and be joined by opening act Brendan Kelly in a Saturday afternoon show on Aug. 21 at the Holmesburg lawn-care company that has embraced its “Make America Rake Again” notoriety.
Grace and Kelly are then scheduled to play nighttime indoor shows at Kung Fu Necktie in Fishtown on Aug. 21 and 22. All three shows are sold out.
A chance to play at the iconic landscaping venue was what drew her to Philadelphia. “I definitely want the feeling of a joyous celebration of a bunch of people standing around singing along to music, because that feels good and makes you feel alive,” says Grace, 40, speaking on the phone from St. Louis, where she has been recording new music. “I need feelings like that after the past year and a half.”
“But then that press conference with Giuliani was like a true Black Mirror moment where it felt like reality was melting before our eyes, as his hair dye was melting,” she says.
“And whatever politics people have or whatever their basis of yes or no or truth is, that just seemed, from an optics level, so bats— crazy. Anyone who looked at it had to say: ‘C’mon, this is weird, right? What are they doing here?’”
Promoter Kiss, who regularly books Kung Fu Necktie and places acts at venues like Johnny Brenda’s and the First Unitarian Church, made a Four Seasons pilgrimage last November.
“I went up there a few days after the event, with a couple of friends of mine. Just hung out, took pictures and felt the energy,” Kiss said.
In April, an agent for Kelly, who’s a friend of Grace’s, contacted him, looking for an outdoor Philly venue. “I was like, ‘Boy do I have an outdoor venue. The perfect one. And then we wondered if Laura would fly in and play this. Because it could be really special.”
“This might sound kind of hokey,” Kiss says. “But I’m from Philly. And this parking lot was pushed on the world stage, to be a stage. And this is kind of embracing that, as Philadelphia.”
Grace thought it could be special too, though rather than flying, she’s packing a guitar and amp and driving from Chicago, DIY-style, for what’s turned into a four-show sold-out run, beginning Aug. 20 at Crossroads in Garwood, N.J. “This is not for the filthy lucre of a big, fat paycheck,” she says. “But I’m going to drive out there, and it’s going to cover my gas and back.”
The idea, she says, is to “reclaim” the Four Seasons space “and make it something more, or something different. It feels healing, like touching base with reality again. This is a real place, and I’m going to stand in front of it and play my guitar.”
The cluster of August dates will be Grace’s first since the release last October of Stay Alive, her only solo album after two decades of Against Me! releases.
High points among those include the fist-pumping 2005 breakthrough Searching for a Former Clarity and 2014′s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the initial Against Me! release after Grace came out as transgender in 2012. In 2018, she put out Born To Rot as Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers.
Grace wrote most of the songs for Stay Alive pre-pandemic, including a resonant one called “Shelter in Place” that begins with the tender couplet: “Fra Angelico blue, all my love for you / My own private paradise, quarantine is very nice.”
The intent was to turn the tunes into an Against Me! record. But after the band, originally formed in Florida, played a Bernie Sanders benefit in New England last March, the shutdown sent them back to their homes around the country.
Grace was isolated at home in Chicago where she has month-on, month-off parental custody of her 11-year-old daughter, Evelyn. “I spent a month completely alone, then a month with my kid,” she says of her pandemic rhythm. “It was remote schooling, though a lot of that depends on us, the parents. It’s hard to teach your kid math when you’re not really good at math yourself.”
Not knowing when she and her bandmates would be again able to be together in a recording studio, Grace got to work fashioning the songs intended for Against Me! into a solo album. (She also stayed busy with her live monthly radio show for Vans, sponsors of the long-running Warped Tour that Against Me! has played many times.)
Teaming with famously quick-working Steve Albini, whose long list of credits as an engineer include classics such as The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Nirvana’s In Utero, she made an urgent, stripped-down record that recalls folk-punk fellow travelers Billy Bragg and the Mountain Goats.
In addition to real-world protest songs like “Hanging Tree,” Stay Alive has its diffuse stretches, “songs that are really surrealist-based and abstract, more about feelings and painting with words,” she says, like “Ice Cream Song” and “Supernatural Possession.”
“That gave me comfort and made more sense to me as the pandemic progressed,” Grace says. “It was too much reality, too much sitting there looking at the news. To try to write overarching statements about everything happening seemed an impossible task.”
The album closes with the openhearted “Old Friend (Stay Alive),” which was the first song written of the bunch.
“I wrote it for a friend of mine who had been going through a hard time, and I was worried about them. You think about the old times and where we all are now ... and the lifetimes lived, and that especially felt relevant when faced with the pandemic,” she says. “Because whatever twists and turns our lives had taken, the ultimate feeling I had towards my friend who I wrote the song for was like, ‘Just stay alive.’ ”
Grace also had herself in mind when she wrote the lyric, “I don’t belong anywhere I go / Always the outsider.”
“I always feel intensely alienated,” she says. “I think that was part of being closeted as a trans person, and it’s part of being out as a trans person. There’s definitely been strides and acceptance and visibility and understanding over the past decade or so, but there’s still so much more work to be done.
“Existing as a transgender person in society, oftentimes things don’t fit, you know? That’s part of the problem. But what can you do but keep living? That’s part of the experience.”