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Big Sugar bringing acoustic show to Sarnia - Sarnia Observer

Article by Paul Morden

Yardstyle, the title of Big Sugar's latest album, isn't intended to conjure up images of manicured lawns and hot dogs on the grill.

Gordie Johnson, front man and guitarist for the long-running Canadian band, said the album's name comes from a more authentic experience tied closely to the group's long-held association with music from Jamaica.

When Big Sugar brings its acoustic show, based on the new album, to Sarnia's Imperial Theatre on Jan. 23, it will be the third stop on a nearly 40-show tour travelling across Canada this winter.

"Jamaican music a big influence on us," Johnson said on the phone from Texas, where the veteran musician and producer has lived in recent years.

"From our early years in Toronto, we really lived in those communities, and ate the food, and heard the music, and played in those clubs."

In Jamaica, people will gather together in communal yards to play hand drums and sing, "and it's a very spiritual and organic kind of a thing," Johnson said.

The 13 tracks in Yardstyle are percussion-heavy acoustic, and often reggae-influenced, versions of Big Sugar classics, including Turn the Lights On, as well as some new songs.

The upcoming acoustic tour begins Jan. 21 in Parry Sound and ends March 11 in British Columbia.

The album includes the band, along with several musical friends, playing unplugged and in a very spontaneous way.

"If you put us in a studio with a bunch of acoustic instruments, that's what comes out," Johnson said of the sound.

And, it got the band members thinking about the music made in Jamaica, where a yard means something very different than in North America, Johnson said.

It's an open space in shanty towns, faced by several homes.

"That's where they build a fire at night . . . and where the community comes together."

Johnson said the band was already playing its songs this way during rehearsals, in the back of tour buses, and in dressing rooms and hotel rooms while on the road.

But, it wasn't what audiences were hearing at the loud, electric shows Big Sugar is known for.

During those quieter, and until now, private moments, Johnson said, "We make the music really close to each other so we can really connect."

Recently, he thought, "Imagine if that's all we had to do every night, this thing we do just for us?"

When he brought the ideal up with the rest of the band members, they were immediately on board.

"Before I knew, we were in a recording studio and we'd have 12 people sitting in a circle around some microphones," mostly unaware of the recording process going on, Johnson said.

"When you hear the record, it really is like eavesdropping on the band."

The band that was active through the 1990s, and later took a break for several years before reforming, includes members from Jamaica, so those sounds are very much part of its makeup, along with rock, jazz, blues and other influences, according to Johnson.

The band has already performed its acoustic show a few times since recording Yardstyle.

"The crowd response was so dramatic, and our feeling from the stage as musicians was very dramatic as well," Johnson said.

"It's a very spiritual kind of thing to experience that kind of fellowship with your fellow musicians and the crowd.

"Because, there is no electricity between you . . . it's very immediate and intimate and facet of our music we've never really had a chance to share with an audience."

Johnson said the band is linking up with the charity World Vision on the tour to promote aid for children in Ethiopia.

"We get to play guitar and sing songs, that's our hard day at work," he said. "How lucky are we?"

Asking World Vision to also be part of the tour, and provide information to the audience, is a little thing the band can do, Johnson said.

"We'd like to take this opportunity to go an give people a nice night of music, and offer them an opportunity to help kids."

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