McGowans rediscover True Spirit of 420

McGowan Family Band GigCity Edmonton420 has to be the most redundant, ridiculous holiday ever invented. Every hour of every day is 420 for its most chronic celebrants. Why bother?

“I guess it’s kind of like how people have Christmas in their hearts all year round, but still celebrate on that one day,” says Mark McGowan of the McGowan Family Band, who admits he tokes at least once a day.

Edmonton’s premiere jam band has been celebrating 420 with special concerts since 1999 – the first at their own high school drama room, unbeknownst to the teacher. This year’s 420 Countdown happens Sunday, April 19 at Cha Island Tea with five like-minded acts on the bill: Also with High Tides, Funk Sway, Firm Band and Peter John Rutledge. Doors open at – you guessed it – 4:20 pm.

The origins of 420 are shrouded in a cloud of mystery. Some folks believe an absurd story about some high school stoners from the 1970s who arranged to meet every day at 4:20 pm, generally agreed upon as the perfect time of day to get lit. How and why that particular time of day and the 20th day of April became universal symbols for celebrating cannabis culture isn’t clear; High Times magazine may have had something to do with it. They’re stoned. Or maybe it was a band called the 420 Band, also stoned. Maybe some stoner blurted out a random number while high that sounded hilarious at the time. Who knows? Who cares? 420 is here to stay. It’s a brand. There are 420 head shops in every city, all manner of 420 merch, 420 bongs, 420 t-shirts, 420 coffee mugs, and a company in Colorado called My 420 Tours that offers guided weed tours all year round. Marijuana is legal in Colorado.

It's not such a bad little plant

It’s not such a bad little plant

Some stoners are sad that 420 has become so commercialized. McGowan says, “When it first became mainstream, a lot of people were saying, ‘Oh, 420 doesn’t mean as much as it used to because everybody knows about it.’”

That’s good news if you happen to be a stoner band. Ironically, very few of the best stoner bands actually write songs about weed, and if they do it seems a little forced, a little contrived, like Kottonmouth Kings, whose very name is a drug reference; or Cypress Hill, only one of a number of rap groups that raps about marijuana; or the Black Crowes, which displays the marijuana leaf at their shows and tries very hard to be a great stoner band, often succeeding.

Bob Marley made it look easy. And Pink Floyd, one of the greatest stoner bands of all time, doesn’t use any weed imagery or have a single song that references marijuana specifically. Comfortably Numb doesn’t count. It’s about heroin.

The McGowan Family Band doesn’t write songs about weed, either. What makes them a stoner band is their general Grateful Dead-like sound, their style, their half-baked lyrics and their propensity for 10 minute songs – “almost a minimum for us,” McGowan says. Even titles give it away. With brothers Paul and Sean, with adopted sons Sean Brewer and Jason Kodie rounding out the family band, they’re working on their second album: Psychedelic Tales of the Lawn Gnomes, Vol. 2.

It’s hard to put your finger on it, but you know a stoner band when you smell it.

“Maybe there’s a little mention in the lyrics, but usually it’s the feel of the music,” McGowan says. “Whether it’s heavy metal or funk or whatever, there’s always, I don’t know, for me, you can kind of tell right away, the way they play, the mannerisms of their live show, you can tell they’re a stoner band. It’s hard to say. I think some of the stoner bands don’t bill themselves as a stoner bands – or maybe aren’t even aware they are stoner bands.”

The simple explanation is that good stoner bands write their music while stoned – which other stoners can pick up on. McGowan agrees: “I find for myself that THC use opens up your mind to be a little bit more creative, to think outside the box.”

We don’t need a special day to celebrate that.