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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Gainesville native rockstar Laura Jane Grace returns to her roots

Grace reflects on her history, where she is now

A full house of punk-rockers dressed in their best black tank tops, skinny jeans and fishnet tights met Laura Jane Grace’s heavily anticipated return to Gainesville. 

Frontwoman of former punk band Against Me!, Grace embarked on her 24-show spring tour earlier this month with Weakened Friends, performing at the High Dive Friday.

Fans packed the performance venue, leaving hardly any space from the stage to the back hallway near the bathrooms. Those who couldn’t make it inside filled the venues' outside beer garden, watching the show from the TV screens placed on the bar’s back wall. 

While many know Grace for her time in Against Me!, few know her journey began in Gainesville during the late ‘90s. 

“I started off going to see shows in St. Pete and Tampa,” she said. “Just by hanging out and meeting people and learning what was going on the scene, I realized what was really happening in Florida was going on in Gainesville.”

Grace grew up as a self-described army brat, constantly moving around as her father transferred bases. She bought her first acoustic guitar when she was only 8, a purchase made possible by countless hours of mowing neighbors’ lawns and saving money. 

She moved to Naples when she was 12 in the early ‘90s, when grunge and punk groups like Pearl Jam and Nirvana were becoming popular. Grace discovered a burgeoning punk scene in the Fort Myers and Naples area, but not a lot of bands were touring there at the time she said. 

At the time, Grace’s mom was pushing her to go to college and they went on a trip with family friends to Tallahassee and Gainesville. Friends and community organizing at the Civic Media Center immediately drew her to the city, she said. 

Against Me! started in 1997 when Grace was 17. She dropped out of high school to pursue music full time and when she turned 18, she remembered her trip to Gainesville with her mom and decided to move there.

The Civic Media Center was located off of West University Avenue at the time, but its purpose was the same: to provide a non-corporate place for civil activism in Gainesville. Grace would volunteer there and work as a promoter for the venue’s performance space. 

At that time, most venues were clubs or bars that were all 21+. Residents didn’t have the Internet to spread the word about shows, but they could tape up flyers on West University Avenue anywhere they wanted. 

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Grace, 18 at the time, wasn’t able to perform at these venues and would instead perform in the CMC’s performance space. It created a safe environment for young punk kids to come together and create, Grace said. 

“It was a really amazing, vibrant scene,” Grace said. “There were certain restaurants in town that all the punks worked at, where you could eat for free when you were a broke young punk kid.”

Grace would also pick up shifts part time at The Top, where she met longtime friend Mike Mehaffey, 45, who now owns Death and Glory Tattoos in downtown Gainesville.

Their friendship developed over the course of years, and it continues now. Even though Grace has moved into performing full time and Mehaffey now owns a business and has a family, he said they check in on one another when they can. 

Grace has always had a drive and a passion that propelled her from her past, Mehaffey said. 

“I think that passion is hard to find,” he said. “To sit back and think about the days back in Gainesville, and then think about her now — it's impressive.”

Against Me! didn’t take off immediately, Grace said. The band was creating different music than what was being seen in Gainesville at the time.

It wasn’t until recording with Rob McGregor that the local scene began to notice what they were creating, and Against Me! would start to grow a national following. 

Grace cites established bands that came before Against Me!, such as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Hot Water Music and Less Than Jake, as guidelines for their success.

“There were bands that we could look at and be like, ‘Oh, that's how they're doing it,’” she said. “We got to get a van. We got to go and play in other places. We just followed their example. And we would play in town as much as we possibly could.”

Local Gainesville band Mike and The Nerve opened the show for Grace Friday night. Frontrunner Mike Llerena, 31, first heard Grace perform live at the High Dive, which was called Common Grounds at the time, in 2011 alongside Against Me!. 

At the time, Llerena had just begun playing local shows as a soloist. Seeing Grace was affirming for him because he was able to see someone create the same music he was creating and be successful doing it, he said. 

“I knew I had the quintessential rockstar dreams after seeing that show,” Llerena said. “Being given the opportunity 12 years later on that same stage to perform on the same show as Laura was just like a really cool, full circle moment.”

UF electrical engineering sophomore William Diaz, 20, plays guitar and supports Llerena with backing vocals for Mike and The Nerve. 

Diaz remembers listening to Against Me! throughout high school when he first started playing the guitar. He joined Mike and The Nerve earlier this year and had only played the High Dive once before Friday. 

“For my second live show in five years to be the biggest show that I have ever played,” Diaz said. “I don't think anything I have done will top the show.”

For Grace, the return to Gainesville is always filled with bittersweet moments, she said, and she has nothing but good memories of her time in the city. 

“I still remember fondly all the people that were a part of the scene when I was there, and I'm so thankful for them and for the example they set,“ she said. 

Contact Gracey at Follow her on Twitter @graceydavis_.

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Gracey Davis

Gracey Davis is a UF journalism junior and Avenue staff writer. Gracey is a self-described girl boss, secretary for FMSA and a passionate Philly sports fan. If you're looking for her, try the Marston basement, where she often pretends she's a STEM major. 

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