B.A. Johnston Had Victoria Laughing at Themselves (and Everything Else)

Phoenix Bar & Grill, June 17

With Knife Manual and Pooched

Photo: Tyson Elder

BY Alan RantaPublished Jun 18, 2022

When the going gets weird, troubadour-on-the-skids B.A. Johnston is already there, camping out in the parking lot and selling hot dogs out of his mother's 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan. The Southern Ontario folk hero normally would have played at Logan's Pub, what he referred to as his Victoria home since 2003, but that legendary local venue was forced to close in 2020 amidst ongoing COVID restrictions. Instead, Johnston's post-pandemic trip to British Columbia's capital saw him land a fair distance out at the Phoenix Bar & Grill.

Closer to Saanich than the city proper, the friendly family-owned neighborhood pub barely has a website, and they haven't tweeted since 2019, so neither contained any mention of this show, but they're active on Facebook and available for live music on select weekend dates after the grill shuts down and they kick all the regulars out at 9 p.m. Between rolling keno results and a TV suitably playing Back to the Future III in its entirety, a sign over the waitress said "this bar may contain nuts," and last night (June 17) it was full of them.

Filling the unusual venue to capacity on a Friday night, Johnston hit Victoria in support of latest LP Werewolves of London, Ontario (fittingly named after the Warren Zevon classic and with an album cover decked out in Canadian ephemera), and made sure to sprinkle in plenty of local flair, starting with the two opening bands. Pooched's preferred self-descriptor of "toilet rock" sells their punky power-pop prowess short. Their set-up was simple — just a couple pedals each on a bass and guitar with a modest drum kit for a three-piece band playing three chords — but they were spirited enough to sell it with enthusiasm. Their guitarist broke a string near the end of their set, but said it wasn't an important one, and they made sure to encourage patrons to tip their bartenders.

Punk quintet Knife Manual set the stage for Johnston's trademark theatricality thanks to the onstage addition of Coach Wolf, an older gentleman wearing a "Knife Manual Coach" sweatshirt, tight '70s gym shorts and striped sports socks. He spent the set timing the band on a stopwatch to make sure they played fast enough, and blowing them the whistle for taking too long between songs. That said, when the band started into a shockingly faithful cover of "Ocean Pearl" by 54-40, Coach Wolf appeared to be taking a bathroom break, so no penalty was called. (Someone onstage eventually declared him the worst coach ever.) The crowd playfully churned for occasional songs until near the end of their set, when they spent several rapid-fire thrash tracks shoving from one side of the steamy, beer-soaked room to the other, coaxing vocalist Ty Stranglehold to ask for a window to be opened as he dripped with sweat.

It would only get hotter for B.A. Johnston.

With three cold beers on the floor, a shot glass on a keyboard, and the initials B.A. in lights leaning against the remaining drum kit waiting to be inevitably torn down, the stage was set — or so it seemed. Johnston started playing Zevon's original "Werewolves of London" on a Discman that he later referred to as a Blackberry Passport, then promptly left the stage as the song played itself out and began to repeat. He re-emerged wrapped in a flag repping his beloved Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team before launching through the crowd, then returning to the stage to proclaim, "I'm so fucking tired already!"

The laughs kept coming — he pretended to read the city's name off his palm, nearly called Logan's Pub his favorite local venue and delivered a series of blessedly vulgar jokes at the expense of nearby Port Alberni — before launching into "Dayoff Is a Dayoff," a song about getting purposefully destroyed on booze in order to avoid getting called in the next day, Office Space-style. Naturally, this led into his ode to employee theft, "How Many T​-​Bone Steaks Can I Fit In My Pants?" from his 2008 album Stairway to Hamilton. Mid-song, Johnston made a dude in a red Primus shirt chug a beer, then crushed the plastic cup against his own head. 

There wasn't much moshing, but the audience participation was just as strong for Johnston. They sang along perfectly, enhancing or even taking many choruses. Working his way through the crowd for "I Don't Buy No Government Weed (Still Buying from Steve)," he put my shirt over his head and sang part of the chorus through it. Throughout the set, he'd coax others into chugging beers using a litter picker, lasso large swaths of the crowd with his mic cable as he worked circles around them, and strip down shirtless and do the worm a few times on the disgusting floor, each one bringing him closer to death. If one learns nothing else from this guy, it's that we should all take ourselves a little less seriously. 

There's no point in trying to be cool at a B.A. Johnston show. He'd just make fun of you for it anyway. This kind of show is about losing pretension and connecting to the small moments that bring us all together. These are songs about getting GST cheques, going to see Van Halen on mushrooms, accidentally eating a too-strong weed gummy, fear of not having dental care, and loathing your final shift at Tim Hortons. These are songs of common people — at least the kind who would spend $15 to get into a dive bar halfway to the ferry terminal on a Friday night — and they were turning them away at the door in droves.

For his encore, he sang "Best Day Ever" from 2012's Hi Dudes! The song celebrates the arrival of McDonalds coupons in the mail, and as he performed, he dispersed a large bag full of Junior Chicken sandwiches, before leading the rabble all into the bathroom for the grand finale. The venue may have been too hot, but it felt just right for Johnston.

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