ReFrame 2021
Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish
B.A. Johnston at the Red Dog, courtesy of Spencer Wells.

A Toast to B.A. Johnston

Written by
November 25, 2020

A Toast to B.A. Johnston
B.A. Johnston at the Red Dog, courtesy of Spencer Wells.

Buckle up folks – this article is a real doozy. As soon as Connor and I got the word that the legendary Canadian performer B.A. Johnston was performing another show in Peterborough, there wasn’t so much as a doubt in our minds that we had to go see him. With a limited capacity show that was nearly sold out within a week, the hype was almost too much to handle. As a fellow musician and avid fan of B.A., Connor’s expertise makes him the perfect candidate for giving the best possible show review:

Canadian Beers. A subject we should have a fair amount of experience in by this point, if not already beginning our foray into the field. That being established, my understanding was thoroughly rocked to the core when I went to see B.A. Johnston at The Red Dog on November 20. It was a brisk evening, but familiarly comforting as we approached The Red Dog. It was surprising to see that the show was advertised on the marquee as the exterior of the building was still sporting signage and advertisements of events scheduled for March of earlier this year. COVID has had a weird ability these past months to freeze parts of everyday life in their tracks and preserve them for us all to see. Small things, but they can make all the difference when you notice them. For me, they served as all the more reason to get to that show as fast as I could, lest I become trapped in the moment (but not before stopping at The Only for a few warm-up rounds of course!). 

I was introduced to B.A. Johnston through the Peterborough music scene when I arrived here back in 2017, but for reasons even I can’t remember he was swept from my attention until my co-host at Trent Radio re-introduced him back to me this month. While assembling the playlist for our show, we decided to focus on B.A. Johnston’s collected works for our theme that week. What ensued was the greatest choice I have ever made. We were subjected to a colourful array of insightful lyrics, memorable choruses, and simplistic yet iconic melodies. B.A. Johnston takes the world of suburban southern Ontario and weaves it into a wild tapestry of his memories of growing up there. A key thematic element of his approach to the alternative/punk genre is his jovial commemoration of growing up in Canada in the eighties, giving all of his songs a unique spin as they reminisce over Peterborough landmarks we still remember and enjoy today. Excellent examples of this tendency show through in songs like “I Miss the Pigs Ear Tavern” and “We’re All Going to Jail (Except Pete, He’s Gonna Die)”. While his Spotify releases betray his wild creative streak, nothing on there would prepare us for the show to come as we crossed the threshold of the Red Dog. 

We entered our first mid-COVID show with a mixed air of curiosity and relief, as we remembered how much we missed our local venues here in Peterborough. Yet, we were concerned for how realistic this approach to shows would prove to be. This was quickly laid to rest after opener “Poor Pelly” of Oshawa roused the audience with his exciting take on folk punk through a bluegrass lens (capturing my heart especially when Pelly brought on a backing banjo player for his finale). Then finally, it was time. B.A. Johnston took the stage with the confidence of Prince after the seminal release of “Purple Rain”. Running around the Red Dog armed with lit sparklers and ear to ear grin, B.A. made an impression that would set the tone for the rest of the performance. Armed with an acoustic guitar and an old CASIO keyboard, B.A. would go on to dominate the evening with his outlandish dance moves, baton routines, and regular intrusions into the audience. All the while, B.A. perpetrated a masterful set of original music in a fashion that would benefit a Massey Hall performance. COVID has proved a challenge to the music scene and challenge for those of us who rely on the emotional release from everyday life it provides. I can confidently say for a brief moment, I truly remembered what I had been missing from live music these past months, and B.A. Johnston took me to a place where I could celebrate what I’m looking forward to when this crisis passes.

I unabashedly love B.A. Johnston, and I feel he has proved to be one of the most prolific teachers for the next generation of indie musicians. His music and performances continue to prove that good, memorable music doesn’t have to be expensive, complicated, or even subversive. It just needs to connect with the people who need it. Either way, I am already counting down the days until I can attend my next B.A. Johnston show - hopefully on the other side of the COVID crisis. Until then, we’ll be waiting on B.A.’s new album.

B.A. Johnston photographed by Laura Laflesh. Courtesy of

I (Spencer) had the privilege of interviewing B.A. Johnston after the show, a prospect I was eager to accomplish since my first show at Spanky’s. Here’s what he shared with us:

SPENCER: What is the one question you wish interviewers asked you?

B.A.: (laughs) All their questions are great! Never a bad question from any interviewer ever. They’re all well thought out and researched. Haha, I got nothing, man!

SPENCER: How about the craziest, or just straight up weirdest question you’ve been asked before?

B.A.: I think the weirdest interview I did was at Trent Radio ten years ago, someone had reached out to me to do the interview, but then they weren’t there. It was just some random high school student – I wanna say they were doing some kind of intern thing or co-op program, and they didn’t know who I was, so they were just like “Do you play music?”. (laughs) stuff like that, I think I was pretty tired because it was pretty early, and I didn’t really want to do it so I was like confused. And then kind of sad at the same time, maybe.

SPENCER: We want to get an impression on how you felt about the show tonight, and having these folks come around?

B.A.: I mean I find the bar stuff can be a little intimidating. This is only the second indoor show I’ve done, and it’s hard to predict how the numbers are going. So when I booked the show this weekend, the COVID numbers were trending a lot lower so it did make me a lot less nervous, but now it’s trending “were all gonna die” (laughs) and now I’m more frightened of it. But I find that it is nice to do something… not that it’s normal because we were wearing masks, everyone’s sitting and there’s a lot of rules, but it’s nice to do something that feels a little bit normal I guess, to me.

SPENCER: So between these recent Ontario shows, what are some of the things you had in the mix in terms of songs and projects, either by yourself or with other artists?

B.A.: To be honest, I haven’t been doing as much. I’ve been trying to write the new record, and I find creative-wise, it’s been a weird thing where I get motivated to do stuff and then a week goes by and then I just wanna play Nintendo or something, maybe eat Doritos and then I don’t do any work. So mostly what I’ve been doing, and what I have been feeling really creative about is writing new songs for the new record, and I did a TV special that got put out by Bell Cable (Bell Fibe). I mean I just wanted money, (laughs) so they paid me to do a quarantine special back in “quarantine”. So yeah, I think that’s it. Just plugging away at the new record, getting the new songs. I have more time to do it because the album has been delayed, so we’ll see about the songs.

SPENCER: We would love for you to give us a quick little take on the Spanky's show a couple weeks back.

B.A.: Oh yeah, I was really happy about that. Peterborough has always been really supportive of live music and it’s nice to see that… I mean, not many places were really doing any music, so when Spanky's said they were doing a show I was a little skeptical. But when I saw the setup they had, it did feel really safe – a nice big patio, the tables were very distanced. It felt really good. It was nice to see someone trying to make a go at it and have a place for the musicians to play. A lot of Peterborough, like the Mayhemingways got to do shows there which I think was probably a long time coming to them since March. I think Spanky's did a great job, hats off to them for sure!

SPENCER: In the summer, which has seen a lot of artists in Ontario and beyond enter a very exhaustive period, what were some of the things you did to keep busy during that time, leading into the Fall?

B.A.: The summer was really busy for me oddly because I got really nervous about money because I thought Justin was gonna take away from the CERB, and that it was gonna run out and I didn’t think they could extend it so I said I would play socially-distanced concerts in peoples backyards. I ended up playing about 50 or 60 shows from July to the end of September. So it’s been the busiest I’ve ever been in my life. 

SPENCER: If you were to make an extended mix of “Canadian Beers”, which beers would you add and from what places?

B.A.: Well the Canadian beers I knew I drank would be Newfoundland’s “India”, Halifax “Schooner”, New Brunswick “Alpine”, Montreal… eugh, their beers are so bad haha. Maybe (Labatt’s) “50” if I can get it – the Quebec beers are not my favourite. Ontario “50”, Manitoba “Bohemian”, Saskatchewan “Pilsner”. I think you can get “50” again in Calgary and then in BC, I think… I might have switched to American Beers up there. The one that’s always the cheapest is “Rainier” or something (laughs).

SPENCER: Really, eh?

B.A.: I’m a bit of an alley beer man – I tend to go for the cheapest. Some craft beers aren’t too bad, the ones in Fernie, BC, are particularly quite good. 

SPENCER: Yeah, the furthest I’ve been out of Ontario was the edge of Alberta and BC, and I was definitely not old enough to drink. 

B.A.: It’s hard to know what to drink. When you go one province over, they have totally different… Even though it’s Labatt’s and Molson for the most part, the beers in Newfoundland are beers you’ve never heard of, but usually are still made by Labatt’s and Molson. 

SPENCER: I wanted to talk about your recent Instagram post, where you perform “Hair in my Donair”. Can you tell us about the inspiration for that track?

B.A.: Yeah, I’ve been really missing the Maritimes, and I just wanted a donair. When I was writing the song, I had a couple beers, because I usually write with beer. I was just thinking “hair rhymes with donair” so it was an easy one, that just writes itself.

SPENCER: This might be an interesting question, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Is there anything you wanted to ask me, as a fan and a reporter?

B.A.: (laughs) Yeah, how was it? It was weird for some people staring at me because they had a big plexiglass barrier, and it only reflected my body back at me so I could only see the crowd. But was it okay?

SPENCER: Amazing. I think tonight’s show affirmed your status as a Canadian treasure, in all honesty.

B.A.: (laughs) Thanks man. I was nervous tonight; I felt a little rusty and I also tried a big soup from Saigon Boys. Shouldn’t have a big soup before a show, maybe should’ve got the medium, they got big soup up there. 

SPENCER: I really enjoyed the “What are you starin’ at, dick head?” shirts, and the fact that you wore two of them at the same time.

B.A.: That’s all you gotta do in this world. Multiple sweatshirts.

SPENCER: I’d like to wrap up by asking what parting advice, or even partying advice, you would give to a 20-something year-old in Peterborough?

B.A.: Peterborough… it doesn’t look like much, but it was probably one of my favourite places to live. I’ve lived in like five or six towns and I found that if you really get into Peterborough, give it a chance, that it's kind of a hidden jewel. A kind of messed up jewel sometimes, (laughs) but still a jewel. There are people that went to Trent that are now all over Canada – like I’ve been up to the Yukon and there’s people up there that went to Trent. It's like a cult of Peterborough, and you’d wanna be a part of that cult.

SPENCER: You did a show in the Yukon?

B.A.: Yeah like 10 years ago, and half the crowd was ex-Trent students.

SPENCER: That’s incredible. I’ve talked to some people from the GTA and they consider Peterborough to be fairly remote, but Yukon though…

B.A.: I’m telling you man, all over the world!

SPENCER: Thanks for having us, BA!

B.A.: Thank you!

Keep an eye on B.A.’s Social Media for more updates on his work to come, and the potential of more show dates to be announced!

ReFrame 2021
Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish
ReFrame 2021
Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish

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