WASHINGTON, June 20, 2014 – There was a point about midway through Jonny Two Bags’ recent set at the Black Cat where he shifted gears, moving from playing hard rock inspired punk and venturing instead into a more measured country rhythm.
The shift was so abrupt that on the surface it might have seemed somewhat jarring to the audience. That’s why the artist took the time to explain how being born in California in the early to mid ‘80s as he was, caused both he and many of his contemporaries to be raised on both punk and country.
Whether he intended to draw the connection between the two genres intentionally, he still managed to make the connection by having the tone of his set remain remarkably on point. Country and punk encapsulate the musician Jonny Two Bags is, and for California punks at least, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two.
Born Jonny Wickersham, Jonny Two Bags in person is something of a punk rock nomad. His day job has him serving as the current guitarist for longtime California punk rock icons Social Distortion. But that’s not the only stop he’s made in the annals of punk, having also played for relatively well known punk acts like US Bombs and Youth Brigade – not the DC version – as well as playing in the somewhat lesser-known Cadillac Tramps.
Being in the bands he’s been in but never quite being the focal point of any of them gives Jonny Two Bags something of a hired gun mentality. His career has primarily revolved around playing guitar where he’s needed. But he’s been around long enough and moved in and out of so many circles that his name has almost become synonymous with California punk.
That backstory makes his latest incarnation as front man for his own band—in this case a troupe of friends enlisted to help him perform his solo effort—that much more interesting, as we now get to see where his actual musical leanings really are taking him.
His new album “Salvation Town”was just released in the middle of this tour. With only a few scant solo releases elsewhere, there’s been a bit of mystery as to what kind of performer he’s going to be under his own identity, based on his punk reputation. Judging from his appearance here, it’s not too surprising that his sound closely resembles that of Mike Ness and his day job with Social Distortion. It combines the brashness of punk that veneers more traditional hard rock.
In other words, what Jonny Two Bags plays is mostly disguised rock. Everything about how he presents himself generally screams ‘70s punk, up until the point where he starts opening himself up to a much wider array of sonic variance. Maybe if the songwriter is strong and confident enough, the mid tempo rock sound is where he ends up.
Over all, Jonny Two Bags’ set in general demonstrates this kind of mix. It’s often tinged by that country vibe that always seems present, or at least close at hand, something apparent in everything he played on stage at the Black Cat. A prominent member of relatively aggressive punk bands in his past, he’s becoming a man very much involved in defining the middle years of life. This kind evolution in musical direction can and often does feel forced, like someone who’s trying recapture his 20s, which of course one can rarely, if ever, actually do.
This certainly isn’t to say his set here lacked energy because that’s not true at all. But it’s a different kind of energy than it would have been if he were undertaking the same musical journey in his 20s.
Truthfully he’s better off for taking this current musical trip, because the country tinged, scene-weary rock ‘n’ roll songwriter Jonny Two Bags has become as his career has progressed is a much more interesting artist than someone who isn’t as confident about the direction of his music, his career, and life in general. Jonny Two Bags’ set is a prime example of how a punk musician matures while still continuing to stay musically relevant.