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.