Gordie Johnson and Big Sugar perform at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook

Gordie Johnson and Big Sugar perform at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook

Big Sugar sweetens the Key City Theatre

Gordie Johnson talks to the Townsman about the acoustic reboot of Toronto’s Blues-Rock legends

Ferdy Belland

“Oh man, the tour’s just been fantastic,” gushes Gordie Johnson, vocalist-guitarist of Big Sugar.

“Our acoustic incarnation’s been met with surprise and delight. Especially for big fans who’ve seen us dozens of times. They’re getting to hear material we haven’t done since our first record. Some songs we’ve actually never played on tour! There’s always this surprised look on people’s faces when it takes them the first couple of bars, and then they recognize the song. Even some of our more popular stuff; it takes them until the first verse before they say: ‘oh my God, it’s THAT one!’ So it’s been a nice reaction, every night.”

East Kootenay fans of blues-driven reggae-rock stand to feel the same reactions this coming Monday, March 2, at the Key City Theatre, where Gordie Johnson and Big Sugar display their winning acoustic format (as displayed on their latest album “Yardstyle”) for all discerning music-lovers to wow at.

“There are eight guys onstage, playing in this acoustic format — there are no speakers onstage — and we’re just sitting where we can see and hear each other without amplification; the band gets more intricate, every night. We’re communicating on a pretty high level. I’ve got so many great guys onstage with me. We’re all people who play together a lot, but never with all of us onstage at the same time! It’s definitely a very gratifying musical experience for me…and the band as well.”

Big Sugar was originally formed in 1988 as the backing band for Toronto jazz chanteuse Molly Johnson, but by 1991 had evolved into a blues-driven power trio. The band’s second album ‘Five Hundred Pounds’ was the breakout CanRock album of 1993, and Big Sugar quickly gained a nationwide audience based on Johnson’s fiery guitar virtuosity, expressively howling vocals, and explosive stage presence (the band plays without set lists; Johnson calls the tunes as they come to him). Follow-up albums like 1996’s ‘Hemi-Vision’ made them platinum superstars, but the band folded on New Year’s Eve 2003/04. Undaunted, Johnson then moved to Austin, Texas, to form the cowboy-metal trio Grady (who recorded four strong albums of their own), as well as the gospel-dub duo Sit Down Servant. Big Sugar themselves finally reunited in 2010 and have been rolling hot ever since.

“We’ve been playing acoustic all along anyway,” Johnson explains, “but usually just as a medium for rehearsal, or songwriting, or prepping for recording — it’s just a far more efficient way to do that. And we found that, rather than keeping it to ourselves, we have so much fun doing it that we decided we’d share it finally with people; so now we’re taking that out and doing it out loud!”

Big Sugar’s Cranbrook appearance will be the fifth of 14 dates on their current North American tour. “Eventually our tour will take us home to Austin,” Johnson says; the Big Sugar frontman now calls the Lone Star State home at least half of time, even though he’s still a proud Canadian.

“We’ve got a bunch of South by Southwest festival shows. And the rest of the year’s going to be busy! We have more acoustic gigs coming in beyond this tour. We also have electric gigs that come in every year for the summer. We have a new electric record, which is already recorded. We went to Europe three times last year alone, which is something we haven’t done in 15 years, and there’s suddenly become a renewed interest in us over there. I don’t have all the dates on the calendar yet, but it looks pretty busy!”

The conversation arcs back to Johnson’s ongoing pride in his band’s wide-ranging musical breadth.

“This is a really unique way to see us play this music,” says Johnson. “You’re catching the band at it’s most inspired point in many years. There’s things going on onstage where we’re so thankful to be able to do this in theatres every night, and the crowd is responding positively to us. There’s no barrier between us and the audience in this format. It’s so quiet and intimate. We can sense the crowd’s reaction. Every breath, you know?”

Johnson’s touring lineup for the ‘Yardstyle’ experience includes longtime Big Sugar alumni Garry Lowe (bass) and Keith Hoppe (horns), as well as Stephen Beaudin (drums), DJ Friendliness (toastmaster), and Jamaican reggae legend Willi Williams, among others.

“Every night on the tour has been as wonderful as the last one. We’ve never been ones to distinguish negatively between the cities and towns we play in. Every night we sit down in our little circle and play is a good day, and the crowds have not let us down.”

Johnson also explains a deeper sense of noble purpose that empowers his artistic heart. “Something that gives us a great deal of emotional drive on the tour is our charity work with WorldVision. We teamed up with them on the beginning of this tour. We decided not to just make this tour be about selling records, or T-shirts, or concert tickets. At every show, our fans have been visiting our merch table and sponsoring a child in Ethiopia. We picked a village in Ethiopia to make our focus, and in the time we’ve been on tour we’ve sent an entire village of kids to school. Now we’ve moved on to another village.

“We’ve actually had to move our focus; we got the job done in the first place! Our fans are blowing our minds. Some nights we’re getting a dozen kids sponsored. When that’s your motivation to go onstage every night and actually change people’s lives somewhere. We’ve changed an entire community for the better by doing this — acoustic reggae rock. This is something bigger than music. It makes our music better, and more inspired.

Big Sugar perform live in their acoustic incarnation at Cranbrook’s Key City Theatre Monday, March 2, (showtime 7:30 pm), with Official Afterglow Party to follow at the legendary Byng Roadhouse (21 Cranbrook Street North).ww

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