Donning a blood-spattered Hartland Merchants jersey and committing to his hockey goon stage persona — named ‘BJ Killer’, BJ Downey paces on stage with a microphone clutched in his right hand. Theme music lifted from The Price is Right blares over the Broken City house speakers as he welcomes patrons to the weekly instalment of Rockin’ 4 Dollars — an open mic event in the style of a game show that thrives off of unpredictability.
Downey barges the introduction with absolute energy, leaning into each word, allowing no questions regarding his commitment to being asked by the audience members littered across the bar.
“Maybe you’ll form a band, maybe you’ll fall in love,” Downey announces into the microphone with enough conviction and volume that you question if amplification is necessary. “Grab a drink, tip your bartenders. Welcome to Rockin’ 4 Dollars. I’m BJ Killer.”
A week earlier, Downey’s presentation is a long shot from what it is on stage. Slumped in his chair at our table located in the middle of a vacant hardwood dance floor at Dickens Pub. Downey chats nonchalantly, hiding almost all the theatrics he brings to his hosting style. Like most weekdays in the early afternoon, the venue is next to empty, other than a few staff members tending to lunch break visitors trickling into the bar for a quick meal. Throughout our visit, himself, his mother Anita Downey, who’s visiting from their hometown of Hartland, N.B., and I are the pubs only active customers.
Downey’s demeanour fluctuates depending on the topic he’s on in the moment. Sometimes leaning forward in his chair with urgency as he recalls an anecdote from back home in Hartland.Other times he drops back into the chair’s backrest, slumping his arm over the side while speaking with disgust about promoters taking advantage of young, naive bands.
When speaking of the success he’s seen in his Wednesday night hosting gig, Downey radiates a sense of pride. Since borrowing the concept from his friends in Halifax, Craig Hammond and Adrian Broom, back in 2015, Downey’s Rockin’ 4 Dollars in Calgary has steadily gained momentum.
It’s a trend Downey attributes to the simplicity and accessibility of the show.
“Rockin’ 4 Dollars is kind of what the music industry is about. You just have fun, and you hang out, and you meet people. Networking is very key in the music industry, and that’s exactly what you do at Rockin’ 4 Dollars, and it’s a good time,” says Downey.
The event is simple in format; eight to ten bands sign up to play a 15 minute set on supplied equipment. Following each band, the audience lines up and shakes hands with the performers as they walk off stage, identical to what happens at the end of a little league sporting event. The lineup, Downey explains proudly, is his own innovation to the event. “I’ve seen it like, 150 people deep; there’s not even a hockey lineup in hockey history that long,” Downey boasts. “So BJ Downey, of Hartland, New Brunswick, has had the Guinness Book of World Records ‘longest hockey lineup in history’. Seriously, I’m going to call the Guinness Book of World Records up.”
The same cycle repeats until the end of the night, at which point each performer spins a homemade Wheel of Fortune style contraption for a chance to win cash. The grand prize starts at $200, with another $200 added every week (to a max of $1,000) until it’s won.
Since moving to the city four years ago, Downey has become a cornerstone of Calgary music, playing the guitar and singing for The Hockey Fight. His love of music is furthered, playing bass for The Ativans as well as local pop punk heroes Chixdiggit (pronounced Chicks-dig-it). He also promotes for Dickens pub and helps with booking and organizing the annual Big Winter Classic Festival in January. Downey’s origins in music, however, go back to organizing shows with his mom at the age of 15.
“For the first, I want to say, 35 shows of my career, [my] mom would help me rent the venues, she would run the door, she would house the bands,” Downey explains of his roots. “Protest the Hero, who’s like a huge band, thanks ‘BJ’s mom’ on the credits of their first album.”
“I’ve had some late nights,” recalls Anita Downey, before admitting “It’s not really my type of music, but it’s fun.”
Thriving off unpredictability
At Rockin’ 4 Dollars, Downey aims to create a welcoming, positive environment in which bands can feel comfortable performing, regardless of if they’re an established artist or rookies to live performing.
Punk band, Sellout, who debuted at the event in early January, have built a working bond with Downey after their energetic sound grabbed his attention.
“When I saw Sellout, my jaw just dropped. I see anywhere from 15 to 20 bands a week, so to turn my head and make my jaw drop, it’s got to be out of this world incredible.
“We played the show and never really imagined that BJ or anyone would take interest in us,” said Sarah Rempel, lead singer of Sellout, whose debut EP in slotted for a May release. “But BJ has just taken us under his wing. Immediately we had him booking shows for us.”
The performances on any given Wednesday can vary in chaotic and spontaneous nature, leaving audiences guessing who might end up on stage next. Downey recalls once being joined on stage by Miami trap artist Stitches, a rapper known for his trademark aggressive stage persona and mask of face tattoos that include an AK-47 across his cheek and a teddy bear depicted on his forehead.
“He was playing this venue that we were doing Rockin’ 4 Dollars in the basement of, and he’s like ‘what’s going on downstairs? Can I come check it out?’” recalls Downey.
After wandering down to the basement, Stitches was invited on stage to jam.
“He got on the drum kit, and I played bass and this other guy just made up music, and it was awesome.”
Cash isn’t the only prize available on the Rockin’ 4 Dollars wheel – consolation prizes range in value from donated ‘used guitar picks’ to attending the ‘Big Rock Brewery Tour’. Each occupies 1/25th of the Wheel’s real estate. The prize, ‘Spit a beer in BJ’s face,’ according to Downey, has been landed on roughly 60 times in the past two years
“It’s kind of gross, but it’s also good for your hair,” claims Downey, signalling to his hair, which resembles a hybrid of mop-top era Beatles and late 1970’s Ramones. “Look it up. That’s why I’ve got good flow.”
Joining ‘The Dad Club’
The reason for Downey’s mother’s visit to Calgary is the birth of his first son, River Daniel. Downey says his expectations in fatherhood have been shattered, even after seemingly unrealistic hyping up from friends.
“It changes your life for the better, it’s amazing,” says Downey of the experience so far.
Though he admits he may have to tighten the reigns, Downey refuses to cut off involvement in Calgary music completely — instead offering himself a split lifestyle somewhere in between rock & roll and conventional fatherhood.
“He just had a baby, and when his baby was born, I think one of his first Facebook posts was plugging our demos,” says Rempel of Downey’s commitment to Sellout. “Like, [he] just had a kid, but he’s so committed to being a really supportive guy.”
“I think maybe I won’t party as much,” reasons Downey when questioned on how he’s planning on changing his day-to-day following his entrance into fatherhood. “But late nights, and awesome shows, and memories – that’s got to happen. That’s who I am.”
Editor: Hannah Willinger | firstname.lastname@example.org