In a slick of spilt lager B A Johnston takes a running knee-slide, prostrated in front of a holding-their-nerve but not their laughter crowd as he hollers down the mic. The space is full of beautiful chaos, anchored in unromanticised antifolk as boundaries are breached and we’re all pulled in to the performance. But that’s the end of the night, where did it begin…
It begins with a mystery line up pulled together by Dirty Filis, the moniker of promoter and artist Phil Burgess, and tonight is a wake for that persona. A small exhibition of two of his artworks sit behind a can-come-vase of drooping tulips, the creative chapter has reached its close. Those works have drawn critical praise for their garish, visceral takes on modern life but all things must pass, must make space for something new. And so Public Meltdown #1 becomes the first and the last of the series; under a name which won’t be used again happens a truly one-of-a-kind, couldn’t be repeated if they tried gig.
All we know up front about what will go down is we’ll have a debut set from Sex Jokes and the night is supporting mental health. Those other sets are from spoken word artist Sophie Sparham, and the aforementioned Canadian comedian / antifolk performer B A Johnston while downstairs the merch table contains material from Rethink and mental health is talked about with honesty, positivity, and in a supportive yet pragmatic way throughout the night. It is refreshing as much as reassuring and shows that while creativity is often born from darkness, we are none of us alone (if you need help with your mental health don’t go through it alone – you can find Rethink here).
The night is started by spoken word performer, poet and writer Sophie Sparham. She shares works from her debut collection Please Mind The Gap and unpublished works, hugely observant and honest, all delivered in a broad Derbyshire accent. Her words are a metronome to which our hearts begin to beat as she speaks of class divide, of the fallacy of capitalism, of love, of choosing life over the darkness swelling at different volumes inside each one of us.
She’s followed by that first performance from Sex Jokes, aka Shelley Jane Newman (also of Mighty Kids, God No! and solo project Shelley From Finance): one which we’ve been openly looking forward to for a long while. We made the project one to watch on our 2018 list on the strength of the single demo shared and tonight proved us more than right as other songs debuted in public and our favourite new pop punk band was born.
The set starts with Talk, and those influences from Rilo Kiley to Pillow Queens are all evident, and continue through a set seeped in politics as much as melody with Real Girl‘s Trans power message, and Exorcism‘s down and dirge-y guitar matched to exasperated emotions. Highlight of the set is Creepy Uncle, not only for its use of looper pedal to build the melodies over each other and mirror the internal spiralling thoughts of the lyrics, but for resonating painfully but necessarily on the complexity of abuse, drawing darkness from the chest while making the heart dance to the beat. As first performances go Newman has shown Sex Jokes will be a vital part of the Derby music scene but also an important artist in the new wave of female led punk.
And then it is the real treat; B A Johnston. Last time he played Derby it was to a handful of people and tonight that audience has grown as word spreads. But how to describe what is essentially indescribable, something that really must be experienced even if it can’t ever really be totally understood. I’ll have a go…
He’s been described as Canada’s answer to G.G.Allin, as Noisey put it, ‘A long-sideburned, van-dwelling showman who compels you to embrace your inner hoser and fuggin’ giv’er’. The whole space tonight is his stage as he breaks down any divide between performer and artist, getting up in people’s faces, rolling around the floor, crawling between legs and pushing cans to semi-terrified people’s lips and tipping the drink into them. There is apprehension, there is excitement, there is a mischevious energy that simultaneously celebrates and tears down the pointless mediocrity of modern living.
Athletic jumps from his chair, high-kicking-toe-touches from behind keyboards balanced across chair arms, splitting a small group from the pack by circling them and entwining them in the mic lead: it is mischief which abounds tonight. These songs are real ‘look at what you have become’ mirrors to dirty souls, offering escape from the disappointment of life through the solidarity in his observations. This is no hand-wringing search for life offering something more, but acceptance bordering on revelling in the sleaze of the everyday.
Audience participation is mandatory in songs the inconvenience of finding your drive-thru order is wrong (Drivethru Beef), the filthy luxury of Deep Fryer In My Bedroom, and the lovelorn of My Heart Is A Blinking Nintendo. His performance ricochets around the room, antifolk for those who know we’re all doomed but have to work a retail job while waiting for society’s slide to become the final crash and burn, a real ‘fuck it all’ hedonism where art is left to writhe semi-naked on a beer-soaked floor and celebrate all that is stupid.
But this only touches the edges of what it is to experience B A Johnston. As he leads us downstairs and climbs atop the bar for the finale there’s a sense of disbelief, and as we began so must we end: this is beautiful chaos anchored in unromaticised antifolk, boundaries fully breached and a performance of burning brilliance we were all part of.
- May is Mental Health Month. If you are struggling or know someone who may need help you can find resources and support at Rethink Derby. Let’s talk about mental health more, be kind to each other, and ditch the stigma.
Find B A Johnston:
- on Bandcamp.
Find Sex Jokes:
Find Sophie Sparham:
Images by Pete Darrington.