GREG GRAFFIN and the WEAKERTHANS at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), tonight (July 20) at 9 pm. $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
According to Greg Graffin, all you little punk-rock boys and girls with your spikes, your studded jackets and your lip-curling snarls have quite a bit more in common with some old-timer from the Ozarks sipping corn whiskey and plucking away at his banjo while singing murder ballads than you may imagine.
The frontman for the seminal So-Cal punk band Bad Religion, who has just released a solo collection of classic American folk tunes entitled Cold As The Clay (Epitaph), is out to prove to anyone willing to lend an open ear that folk music is way cooler than most of us care to admit.
"I would say there's a lot of similarity between folk and punk. It's written for the common man. It's written for people who work - the class that built the country. Protest music in itself is part of the punk tradition, so naturally, I'm drawn."
From his rehearsal space in upstate New York, an "out-of-the-way place with a very creative atmosphere," the thoughtful Graffin tells me that the timing for this unlikely project wasn't that mysterious. It was actually three or four years in the making.
Bandmate and Epitaph records founder Brett Gurewitz initially suggested the idea. Things really started to coalesce when Graffin was introduced to Winnipeg's the Weakerthans, who also happened to be on Epitaph. Soon after, Gurewitz put out an offer to have three-quarters of the band act as Graffin's backing players.
Turns out the match was as lucky as a winning bet at the Kentucky Derby, since the Weakerthans' members, including Toronto bass player extraordinaire Greg Smith, all seemed to be on the same page aesthetically as Graffin.
"I was trying to show snapshots of American life that were timeless. Using imagery that could apply to 200 years ago just as today, lyrics that are full of American life. I'm not really describing people playing on the Internet, but landscapes and emotions and things that have persisted for 100 years."
From the way Graffin talks about his new musical experience, it's clear that the outspoken and passionate singer (not to mention PhD holder and academic author) has great reverence for this project, and he humbly admits that it's a privilege to play something so family-oriented.
Privilege or no, Graffin must be doing something right when his takes on hallmark ballads like Omie Wise have won approval from those in the know.
"It's gotten very high marks from old-time aficionados. It's a real musical-sounding album."
Oh, but don't you worry, all you young whippersnappers, upstarts and rabble-rousers. Just because Graffin's started playing your daddy's music doesn't mean he doesn't have the fire in his belly to continue on with the band that got him where he is today. He says Bad Religion is currently working on new material, and that between the book he's writing on biological evolution and his solo tour, he'll be making music until there's a reason to stop.
Before the interview's end, I feel the need to prod him about whether that George Bush fella is gonna be a musical inspiration. In typical Graffin style, he quickly gets to the heart of things, while maybe just resonating a little with the newfound melancholy of that old-timey music.
"Every empire has its heyday. We had ours in the 20th century. How long will it take for Americans to accept that?"