Big Sugar aims for something bigger
February 19, 2015

EDMONTON JOURNAL

BY MIKE BELL, CALGARY HERALD

PREVIEW

Big Sugar

When: Tuesday, Feb. 24, Thursday, Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Festival Place, Sherwood Park

Tickets: Festival Place Box Office, festivalplace.ab.ca, 780-449-3378

It’s not about the rock ’n’ roll for Gordie Johnson. Not for his band Big Sugar, not with their latest album, not with this current tour.

It’s about community. It would have to be to get him on the road for a cross-Canada run during what he calls “big boy winter,” and for him to be as upbeat and positive as he is, as he chats on Day 2 in chilly Kenora.

“It really has been the best kind of fun,” Johnson say, a little croaky from all of that fun. “We took a hard look at the tour and decided that we needed to make it about something (else) — it’s not about rock ’n’ roll, for one thing. It’s not that kind of a tour …

“We’ve got some of our Rasta elders with us, actual senior citizens. It’s put a whole different spin on the thing for us … These guys are very spiritual guys.

“And we’re firing up the juicer every night,” he says and laughs. “We’ve got organic produce on the bus instead of cases of Heineken.”

He would have plenty of comparables, considering Big Sugar came of age during the heyday of Cancon, deafening many a clubgoer in the ’90s with their blistering brand of blues, rock ’n’ reggae.

Johnson would go on to leave his homeland for Austin, Texas, and form the harder and heavier trio Grady as well as the gospel and jazz-tinted act Sit Down, Servant!!, before coming back to Big Sugar five years ago, a little wiser and more mellow.

Last year, the band released the acoustic album Yardstyle, which features slower, soulful, percussive takes on older Sugar material, as well as some new songs and covers.

Johnson describes the three-day recording sessions in Toronto as “very casual,” with a dozen musicians — more like friends and family — in a room with microphones and instruments just jamming away on the material.

The current Acoustical Sounds of Big Sugar Tour, which stops in Festival Place next week, is very much the same as the process behind Yardstyle. There is no flash, no frontman, just a group of equal parts and players, all dressed in white, all together in the moment.

Big Sugar has also teamed with World Vision and are using the tour to raise money to sponsor a village in Ethiopia to send 150 children to school.

“It’s so refreshing for us to go into the show every night with that on our minds, because Ethiopia resonates pretty deeply with the guys on the bus,” he says of the Rasta elders, including reggae legend Willi Williams.

The Calgary show will be recorded to air on Shaw as part of the Stampede City Sessions, produced by husband and wife duo Lorne and Candace Webber.

Johnson, who has plenty of family and friends and property in Alberta, says he met the couple in Texas and is an enthusiastic supporter of their show and their plans to turn it into an Austin City Limits-type institution.

“(Lorne) is a guy who’s not in it for the money. He really wants to enrich the culture of Calgary, Alberta, Western Canada — it goes on and on.

“No one’s going to thank you for enriching the culture unless you’re successful at it, so have at it, man. He gets all my love and support there. I’m really looking forward to the show.”