Anyone that’s been to a concert in an arena venue, dealt with the crowds, the parking, the shitty seats and the overpriced, well, everything, can appreciate the intimacy that seeing one of your favorite bands play a little pub can provide.
Seeing the Swingin’ Utters in a venue where even if you were standing at the back of the room you’re still closer to the stage than you would be in the front row at an arena is truly the only way to see one of the best (and I mean top two or three) punk bands in the world today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure seeing the boys at Punk Rock Bowling in Vegas this May will be great as well, but the Punk Rock Bowling crowd won’t be in danger of being pelleted with Johnny’s spit and sweat. I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s missing out or a lucky break.
Alberta doesn’t have a lot of drawing power unless you’re a cowboy or have a penchant for big malls, so we are often left out when bands are touring the western U.S. and skip up to Vancouver and back down into America again without venturing any further east. Every once in a while though, punk rock royalty will come tearing through the prairies and make our day. The last time a band of Swingin’ Utters’ caliber played Alberta was probably the Swingin’ Utters themselves in 2010 while touring their instant classic Here, Under Protest. Even then though, the band just played Calgary and went back down to Uncle Sam. The last time they were in Edmonton was in 2001 when they came in support of NOFX. Needless to say, having the band come to Alberta and play both Edmonton and Calgary meant, for me anyway, seeing the band in Edmonton and then driving down to catch them in Calgary the next night.
Touring around and opening for the band for a few weeks of the tour is the L.A. based country rock outfit Wild Roses (not a reference to Alberta’s being known as Wild Rose Country, though a happy coincidence when the band found out I’m sure). They’re a very talented band with a lot of tightly crafted, catchy songs, but despite the Utters’ occasional forays into country territory, they’re an odd choice for an opening act. They didn’t get much response for their set in Edmonton, but Calgary (Canada’s cowboy capital) was more receptive. The Roses aren’t without their fair share of punk rock cred though. The band’s lead singer/guitarist Marc Orrell, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, was one of the guitarists in Dropkick Murphys for eight years and played briefly in Jim Lindberg’s post-Pennywise project The Black Pacific before Lindberg went back to Pennywise and Marc started the Roses. All in all the Wild Roses are a great band with really good songs and Orrell is one of the most entertaining people to watch live you will probably ever see. They’re just getting ready to release their debut EP, so look out for it because when it drops, this band will take off.
One of the best things about seeing the Swingin’ Utters play two nights in a row is that their sets both night were completely different. Yeah, they have the staples they played both nights and probably play every night (Next In Line, Teenage Genocide, Catastrophe) but, with the exception of Catastrophe, even those core songs are played at different times in the set. This not only gives the fans that are catching them more than once a fresh experience both nights, but keeps things from growing stale for the band themselves. In fact, before the Edmonton show Johnny (vocals), Darius (guitar, vocals) and Greg (drums) could be found at a table in the middle of the bar with a piece of scrap paper and a sharpie making up the set list not two hours before they hit the stage, just whatever they felt like playing that night.
The other remarkable thing about their set list is, for a band that’s been around for over twenty years, not only did they cover nearly every album in their discography both nights, but the songs all stand quite comfortably together in a live setting. While the Utters have remained fairly true to their blue collar street punk sound throughout the years, there’s no denying that many of the songs you’ll find on Poorly Formed sound a million miles away from the songs you’ll find on The Streets of San Francisco, or even A Juvenile Product of the Working Class. Part of this has to do with a natural progression in songwriting over the years, but another part undoubtedly has to do with the influence of a Mr. Jack Dalrymple, the talented singer and songwriter behind or part of such bands as One Man Army, the Re-Volts (with ex-Utters bassist and Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies vocalist Sean ‘Spike’ Slawson) and the first couple of Dead To Me releases.
It can be easy to forget that Jack’s been in the band going on ten years now, especially to folks outside of California. Jack wasn’t with the band the last two times they came to Alberta. I asked the band’s current bass player Miles Peck (from well regarded Bay area punksters The Sore Thumbs) why Jack doesn’t tour with the band and he told me that in order to provide health care for his young son, he has to keep working and can’t usually take the time off. That’s admirable of Jack (anyone who would put music before their family is a moron) but is the sad truth behind not only being in a punk band that doesn’t make a million dollars a year, but living in a country that doesn’t provide those necessities for free. We tend to take that for granted up here in the frosty north.
Anyway, no Jack, no second guitarist on this particular tour, and while the band does sound a little lighter in the mix in that regard, the four remaining members were able to make up for it with talent and energy and fill the sound out regardless.
One of the things that the Swingin’ Utters are famous for in their live shows is the charismatic stage presence of singer Johnny Bonnel (who also designs all of the band’s merchandise). All of the members of the band give it their all and put in energetic performances but it’s Johnny’s sweaty intensity and movements on stage resembling some kind of punk rock Frankenstein that make it hard to take your eyes off him. There was an especially poignant moment at the Edmonton show, when the band played Untitled 21 from the record Five Lessons Learned. It’s a great, catchy, fast song and if you didn’t pay attention to the words you might even mistake it for being a cheerful reminiscence of youth. The reality of the song is something much more sad though. It tells the story of a man who feels that his life peaked at the age of 21 and has gone steadily downhill every day since, leading him to drugs and alcohol as a way of escaping his life and himself. Now I’m not saying that Johnny feels that this song accurately describes his current state of mind, it would be hard to imagine the singer of one of the most highly regarded punk bands on the planet feeling himself a failure. Watching Johnny belt the song out that night though sent shivers down my spine, as if he were pleading with the song that it not be so. I don’t know, I could be reading into it too much, but I don’t remember seeing a more passionate vocal performance.
Both nights it felt like the show was over far too soon. Keeping track of the song list though, they played about 23 songs in each city, which is roughly the same amount of time as their Live In A Dive cd (the vinyl version has 25 songs). That’s not bad and considering they’ve released two proper records, a few 7 inches and a B-sides compilation since then and still managed to play songs from every facet of their timeline.
I worked with a guy one time who was in his 40’s and used to be somewhat of a staple in the Edmonton punk scene. We worked the night shift at a youth shelter in town and would spend hours talking about the shows we had seen and the bands we loved, or do, and I remember him telling me about the time he hitchhiked to Vancouver to see The Clash in the 80’s. He said at the time he knew he was witnessing an amazing band at the height of their powers, but you never know until many years later that by going to that show, you were an active participant in music history.
I expect the Swingin’ Utters have many more years left in them and many more great albums and, if we’re lucky, even a few more jaunts up here to Canada’s cowpoke capital. But I’m not taking this band for granted while they’re still active and I have no doubt that in twenty years I’ll be having a similar conversation with a young punk who can’t believe I got to see the Swingin’ Utters twice in two nights back in 2013. ‘What I wouldn’t give’ he’ll say, ‘what I wouldn’t give.’
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