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Big Sugar explodes live on disc - The Chronicle Herald

Article by Stephen Cooke


FOR BIG SUGAR, whose reputation is built on the intense power of its live shows centred around the forceful bravado of guitarist frontman Gordie Johnson and anchored by the rhythm section's fathoms-deep groove, releasing a concert album is a pretty big deal.

But at the same time, Johnson and his bandmates had to pretend like it was business as usual when they stepped out onto the stage of Winnipeg's Burton Cummings Theatre just over a year ago, in order to preserve the true Big Sugar experience on the Eliminate Ya! Live! CD/DVD two-disc set. We just had a regular night, we took all the same amounts of chances, says Johnson, heading to Halifax for a Big Sugar show with guests the Balconies on Friday night at Olympic Hall.


"I think if you know you're being recorded or filmed, you might play it a little safe. Once you're aware it's being recorded for all time, it makes people more cautious.


"So we were all our usual, carefree, adventurous selves that night."


Over the years, concert albums have lost some of their appeal, seen by some as contractually obligated catalogue filler or viewed with a cautious eye as to their authenticity by skeptical listeners in an age of auto-tune and one-hit wonders.


But Johnson has his favourites, like Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsies and the Who's Live at Leeds.


"The latter was the first record I ever acquired, I actually stole it when I was a rebellious youth, he chuckles."


With very little sense of the presence of the audience, he notes that even that acknowledged classic is missing something.

And don't get him started on the first two Kiss live albums, Alive and Alive II, which he later learned were heavily laced with overdubs after the fact.


"They were my favourite live albums as a kid and they wound up being my favourite studio albums, reasons Johnson. They're still great sounding records, whether they were recorded on stage or not. They sound better than the original Kiss albums that came before.

For his money, the best overall live experience on record is Humble Pie's Performance Rockin' the Fillmore from 1971, capturing the British blues-rockers in their final days, with both former Small Faces singer Steve Marriott and guitarist Peter Frampton playing together in peak form a few months before Frampton's departure for a solo career.


"It'll blow your mind, but you've gotta have all day because it's long," says Johnson.


He notes it includes a 16-minute version of Muddy Waters' Rollin' Stone and a 23-minute version of Dr. John's I Walk on Gilded Splinters.


"There's a certain commitment to rock and roll required to get through the whole thing, he says. I used to run around the house as a kid listening to it on eight-track, that's how far back I go with it.


"When I still had a house in Toronto, Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes had a day off and he came over and we were drinking wine and listening to records, and I put on Rockin' the Fillmore. Anyone who was walking down Euclid Avenue could have looked in my window and seen us jumping up and down on the couch, playing air guitar and having one of the most glorious, juvenile times imaginable.

Time will tell if future generations of listeners will be air-aping Johnson's technique on his signature double-necked Gibson, although on the DVD my eyes were glued to the non-stop hip-shaking of dreadlocked bassist Garry Lowe, but it's to Johnson's credit that he kept the warts-and-all approach to the project, preserving the event as a live document.


"There's a dropped drum stick in there, there's a missed toggle switch on the guitar or something, but I left it in there because â€¦ I could have fixed it, but why? It happened that night and it was part of what made that night what it was.

There's lots of crowd noise in there and a good sense of the room. I really didn't want it to sound like a studio recording. I wanted the listener to feel like they're in the room, and even with the DVD's surround-sound mix, you feel like you're sitting directly in front of the soundboard on the main floor."


But if you want to hear the real thing with organic surround sound, tickets for Big Sugar with the Balconies are available online in advance for $32.99 at www.sonicconcerts.com, or on day of show online and at the door for $37.99. Doors open at 7 p.m., show time is 8 p.m.


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