This wasn’t supposed to happen, but sometimes, the universe provides. BA Johnston had played Regina a week prior to this show, but by now, I know how this works. He’ll play O’Hanlon’s on a Friday night, I’ll have good intentions, but then the week will be over and Mika and I will be tired and won’t make it out. This scene has played out repeatedly ever since BA came into our lives. We’ve only ever seen one of his shows. And it ruled! But, y’know, sleepy.
And then I went off to Calgary for my fall trip to visit my grandma. No concerts scheduled; no extracurriculars at all. Just the usual baking bread, sharpening knives, and walking up and down 17th Ave. Pretty much a non-stop party. I did also have vague plans to meet up with Colin, but again, no date or time or event picked out.
Then BA posted, on Instagram, a picture of a shopping basket filled with bags of Hawkins Cheezies, with a caption listing tour dates. There was possibility here. I’d wanted to force Colin to go see BA Johnston for a while. I put forth the suggestion and he was into it. Or was humouring me. Either way.
Following an extensive search for parking, we went for dinner at Hudson’s, where my options came down to the breakfast poutine and the peanut butter bacon burger. I chose burger. It was okay. Would do it differently if I had to do it again. The poutine sounded really good. Then we headed to a nearby park and library to check out some Beakerheads exhibits. It’s an event that mixes science with art, so there were some projections in the library and interactive displays in the park. There was stuff going on all over the city and this wasn’t the main part of it or anything, but it was neat.
Finally, we headed off to the Palomino, which was the barbecue restaurant Colin and I ate at last time I was in town. At that time, he’d mentioned seeing shows there, and here we were, actually at one. As we headed to the basement, we passed BA sitting with some friends, having dinner, and very true-to-form, watching the Tiger-Cats game.
The Palomino made for a surprisingly good venue. Small space, real low ceilings, excessively warm, lots of character. They sold earplugs in those machines where you insert a coin and spin a thing to get a plastic capsule with a toy inside, an idea I’d encourage every venue to steal. And, we’d later learn, the sound was surprisingly good. I liked this place.
We got drinks, though I panicked when asked what I wanted because I’d not thought that far ahead and wound up with a rye and Coke as though I was my dad in the 80s. Colin got a PBR, which was the only beer I saw anyone drinking. When we saw Hawksley Workman in the spring, the venue had a drink called The Workman. The Palomino didn’t have a drink called The Johnston but if they had, I think a big cheap beer might be it.
There were two local opening bands. The first was Open Channels, a four-piece that I really enjoyed, especially after the first two songs when they borrowed a functioning amp for the bass player. The second was Pancake, who had a bunch of people and matching wigs and black outfits and not-matching sunglasses. If you want more information about either of these groups, good luck; they both have names that are too hard to Google. Neither one sounded like 80s metal, which is a shame, because all of BA’s openers should do so. Of the two, I’d say Pancake was probably a little better but I liked Open Channels a little more. It really comes down to whether you preferred the Open Channels song about the metal box, or, as Colin put it, Pancake’s “one with all the fucks.” I’m not picking the swearing one because sometimes I have to surprise you.
While this was all going on, BA was manning his own merch table and chatting with fans. He also noticeably took some time to listen to the opening bands and was grooving to an Open Channels song right by us for a while.
Finally, it was time for BA’s show, by which I mean he set everything up, put Werewolves of London on repeat on his Discman and went to the back to change his clothes. The crowd was so hyped for the show that we all sang along with the ahWOOOOOs. Eventually, BA re-emerged holding two sparklers and welcomed us to “the basement of the barbecue sports bar.”
And look. If you’ve seen BA Johnston before, you’ve seen this show. The songs get mixed around a little, but otherwise, it’s the same every time. The costume changes, the jokes (in Calgary, they’re at Edmonton’s expense, instead of the Winnipeg-centered ones we get), it’s a routine he has down pat. That said, I enjoyed this more than the previous show I’d seen. Part of it was that Colin was there and I had failed to adequately prepare him for the spectacle we were to witness, which might be the best way to first experience BA. I told him it would be a life-changing experience, but I wasn’t sure if it would be so in a positive way. Then BA dropped to his knees in front of me while singing about Cheezies. And then crawled between my legs. I felt blessed. Before that, he had been running around pouring Cheezies out of a pitcher into people’s mouths. So that part was new.
We only got a few songs off his newest album. Apart from the aforementioned I Rock the Hawkins, he had opened with Geddy Lee, saying that the only people who enjoy Rush are six guys from Regina. (I haven’t met them.) And he played his first single from the album, We’re All Going to Jail (Except Pete, He’s Gonna Die). This was a great singalong with everyone in the place doing the “he’s gonna die” part. He also played a new song about getting run over by a senior citizen that he said was coming out on next year’s Werewolves of London, Ontario.
There were a ton of singalongs throughout the show. This crowd knew the songs and loved them all; perhaps none more so than the keyboard player for Open Channels, who seemed to know every word and had a smile so big that it’s fair to say she enjoyed BA Johnston more than I’ve enjoyed anything ever.
Not that there weren’t a few glitches. Johnston had some issues with his “BlackBerry Passport” (Discman) malfunctioning when playing backing tracks, to where he threatened to write Jim Balsillie an angry letter. And you can tell I work for a phone company because this made me laugh a lot. He also broke character enough to admit that he had “all this shit on a real cell phone” if need be.
But mostly, this was just tremendous fun. He played a few of my favourites, including Dayoff is a Dayoff and GST Cheque; during the latter, he ran around the audience getting people to shout GST into the mic, including me, but when I did so, BA turned away from me then collapsed into my arms. I was sweatier on the outside of my shirt than the inside for possibly the first time ever. Like I said, blessed.
After the show was done, Colin bought a shirt. So I guess I was right when I said it would be life-changing, in that he now has fewer dollars and one more shirt.
My discovery of BA Johnston was tied directly to his 2015 Polaris Prize nomination. Mika and I were on a road trip – coming back from the farm maybe? – and she’d found a streaming audio station playing songs off the 40 albums that had made the long list that year. After a stretch of good-if-samey indie rock, Johnston’s song Gonna End Up Working in Fort McMurray really stood out. It was funny, and I made a mental note to check out more of his music later. Which, of course, I didn’t do.
A while later, Johnston unwittingly found himself mixed into some Polaris controversy. The very short version is that disputes among Polaris jurors led to one juror revealing contents of a private message board where some of the selection discussion was taking place. This included several jurors, including musician and CBC personality Grant Lawrence, being dismissive of Johnston’s music. Which, whatever. Taste is subjective and all that, and I can see Johnston’s low-budget, mostly-comedy music not being everyone’s cup of tea.
Anyway, this all reminded me that I was going to check out Johnston’s music, so I pulled up his Polaris-nominated (and then-newest) album, Shit Sucks. Looking over the tracklist, I went straight for the song Shitty Cat:
Go in the kitchen and I see my cat
On the counter eating taco meat
Say to my cat, “what the hell you doing”
He looks at me, keeps eating taco meat
I got a shitty cat, shitty cat, yo man he’s looking at me
I got a shitty cat, looks at me and then he falls asleep
There’s more, but you get the idea. For whatever reason, I would love to hear Gordon Lightfoot cover this song.
So yeah, I wound up buying the album. And then a bunch more. And then many again on vinyl. I may have a problem. Two of my records came from his own online store. The first was hand-addressed to James “Lite Lunch” Kalyn; the second, James “Dust Mop” Kalyn. Apparently you get a free gift with purchase and said gift is a nickname. I’m glad I planned things out poorly and made two separate purchases. What I lost in extra shipping costs I made up for in nickname.
I hadn’t seen him live before this, though. He tours across Canada regularly, but last time he played Regina was the night before we began our trip to BC last summer, and I didn’t think I could be out that late before a day full of driving. Little did I know.
I’ve only ever been to O’Hanlon’s once before for a show. It was 2006 and it was Geoff Berner playing in front of a completely apathetic crowd. O’Hanlon’s doesn’t charge cover, and the regular O’Hanlon’s patrons were not at all interested in Berner’s music, and he didn’t seem real interested in playing for them. I hoped Johnston would be a better fit.
Not knowing what time we could expect the show to start, I arbitrarily chose 10:00 p.m. based what Johnston had said on Twitter about other shows on the tour. It’s been probably a decade since I’ve been to a show on Amigo’s time and I am now much, much older. Like, 10 years older. And I didn’t care for the late starts then.
As we are old, we tried napping before the show, but a certain yowly cat outside the bedroom door was having none of this. Shitty cat, indeed. I eventually locked him in the basement but by then he had angered up my blood enough that I wasn’t about to get to sleep. Mika managed a bit of a nap, but not enough.
We got to the bar right at 10:00. This left us well-positioned to stand around for a further hour and a half before the openers started. I guessed poorly. As we hung out and drank our Diet Cokes like cool guys, we saw Johnston wandering around in a “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase shirt.
Our openers were Napalmpom from Calgary. They were loud. This was the number 1 impression they made on me. Also the number 2 impression through to somewhere in the 30s. The other impression they made was because one of the guitarists was really into everything they played, and he looked just enough like Colin to make this all hilarious to me. And then the loud thing again.
I get that I am old and I was up late and crotchety and you don’t even use that word before a certain age, but whatever. This was way too loud for the size of the place. The volume made it all sound kinda similar and my ears were still sore when I woke up the next day. Despite that, I still enjoyed them well enough, but they needed to be dial it back or they need to play someplace bigger. That said, BA Johnston (who is in fact older than me) seemed to enjoy them a lot – he spent most of their set down in the audience at the front of the stage.
During the break, Johnston set up his gear – this did not take long, as I’ll get into – and a big light-up BA that decorated the stage. Instead of starting the show, he announced that he was going to go change his pants and have a smoke. Which he did, I assume. He returned brandishing two sparklers, wearing a sailor’s cap, and draped in a Hamilton Tiger Cats flag; that he wasn’t immediately run out of town on a rail is proof that this wasn’t the regular bar crowd.
I would stop short of calling Johnston a full-on comedy act, but there is a lot of comedy involved, which means I have the potential to spoil the show for anyone who reads this. Especially considering that BA himself said that the show never changes. So I won’t go into great detail, but be assured that if you go to a BA Johnston show, you will see costume changes, snot rockets, and confetti which may or may not get sweat-stuck to back fat.
As for the music, BA has three instruments; a keyboard he played maybe twice, an acoustic guitar that has to have seen better days, and a Discman. He generally alternated between the Discman and the guitar. The Discman – sometimes referred to as an Apple 5c or a BlackBerry Notebook – was used to play backing tracks. This would free BA up to run out into the crowd, pour drinks into fans’ mouths, climb on tables, pour drinks into bartenders’ mouths, all that good stuff.
One highlight was hearing Johnston play his new song Saskatchewan for what may have been the very first time in Saskatchewan. At the very least, it isn’t one he plays on tour often; you could tell because he sat still and concentrated for the “45 fuckin’ minutes” it took to play it. (Its actual running time is 2:13, which would still be among BA’s longer songs.) The rest of the time, he was in constant motion – either frantically strumming the guitar or running all over the place.
Saskatchewan is an introspective (for BA, anyway) tribute to the land of the Roughriders, Wonderland arcade, and Humpty’s; a province where “all wounds can be healed but the thirteenth man on the field.” He really gets us.
A number of other songs were also from Johnston’s new album, Gremlins III, including Alley Beers, I’m Stayin’ In, and personal favourite Dayoff is a Dayoff. He did not play Shitty Cat and that is too bad. But I got another one of my favourites in GST Cheque, which not only has an excellent singalong part, but gives me warm nostalgic feelings about getting a “random cheque for like 63 bucks.” He closed with Best Day Ever, which is obviously about the day that the McDonalds coupons show up in the mail. The encore was only one song and as per tradition, he sang it in the bathroom. Specifically the men’s room, but I gather that can vary. It looked like he was standing on a toilet or a sink – I wasn’t sure. The song was I Wanna Drink With Aliens – I couldn’t really hear it (he was off-mic) but it’s another good singalong number so I got the gist of it.
And that was it – the whole set clocked in at a little over an hour. I would have happily taken more but I get that you can only keep that pace for so long, plus I appreciate someone who doesn’t leave ’em wanting less. Plus it was like 1:30 a.m. And it’s getting close to that now because I left my computer unattended and it rebooted for surely good reasons and I lost half my review and had to redo it. I made it better! Which says all it needs to about the original version. Anyway, I’m done now.
On Labour Day Monday, Mika and I were driving back into town from a weekend at the farm and we were listening to some Polaris Prize Spotify station. This was not my choice. My choice is always 90s alternative because I am an old man in a rut. But whatever. Some song came on about working at Fort McMurray and I was all “what the hell is this?” But in a good way, you know? Mika was manning the music and read that it was by BA Johnston and the album was called Shit Sucks and I laughed at that and thought I should maybe check this dude out. Of course, I didn’t. Because I never do.
And then I read that Polaris Prize article that I linked to in that post about songs stuck in my head. BA Johnston was referenced there too, so I googled him and found Shit Sucks on Bandcamp. You can hear the whole album there. A song was called Shitty Cat and I thought “hey, I have a shitty cat, maybe this will appeal to my interests” and it did! In fact, it was super great.
My cat is actually a pretty good dude most of the time. But I like to make fun of him because he can’t talk back, you know?
Anyway this all lead to me buying Shit Sucks and I think this might be my album of the year. Two songs in and he hit me with my new Mission Statement: “I am old and do not have to give a shit about the shit young people give a shit about.”
What A Wonderfully Mediocre Day, in addition to describing so much of my life, also gives good advice:
Gonna shred some no-name Ruffles
Gonna some crush name-brand dip
Cause you could skimp on the chips
But don’t you dare dare dare dare skimp on that dip
Basically, this album is 19* short, ridiculously catchy songs about drinking, getting high, eating pizza, being old, grocery stores, garbage day, bats, Toronto, and Darth Vader managing a Burger King. And a shitty cat.
*there are also two answering machine messages and two tracks of crying babies – it’s 23 tracks if you count those
You Can Love Someone And Hate The Things They Love is about as earnest as this album gets. It’s still silly, but not entirely so. And Ballad of Wheels is oddly poignant for a tune where the chorus includes “it wasn’t his fault that Lucy wanted chips.” Canadians of a certain age just realized what the song is about.
This is not entirely unlike the songs on Bruce McCulloch’s CDs and I am perfectly fine with that. He has several more albums and I fear the next time I am bored, I may hit up iTunes and just buy everything there.