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Music preview: Gordie Johnson keeps his promise to play Irene's pub - Ottawa Citizen


Gordie Johnson says he's going to do something, he makes it happen. That's the main reason the Canadian guitar god is performing at Irene's Pub Nov. 20. The last time Johnson was in Ottawa (opening for George Thorogood in June), he visited the Bank Street pub with his friend, MonkeyJunk's Steve Marriner, after the show. To the delight of owners Alex and Kara-Lee Golota, he loved the place, and promised to return for a gig. Best known as the creative force behind the band Big Sugar, Johnson is a guy who keeps his word, no matter what needs to be overcome. Consider the tour with Thorogood: Johnson got the call last spring that the American blues-rocker needed an opener. He'd just had carpal tunnel surgery on his left wrist and wasn't sure if he could still play.

'My hand was still wrapped up and I was just starting to use it,' Johnson explained in an interview, turning his wrist to show the scar. 'I thought, what better way to get it going? The doctor didn't want me to sit around doing nothing, but I couldn't go out and do the full-on Big Sugar tour. I knew my hand wouldn't be strong enough to do that.'

The agent wasn't interested in a solo act. Thinking fast, Johnson proposed a duo of guitar and drums that mixed traditional gospel and blues numbers with dub. I was making it up as I went along, he says. At the time he was listening to some of his favourite Staples Singers songs. Mavis was singing a song called Sit Down Servant, and I said, 'That's the name of the band.'

When the agent requested some tracks, Johnson got off the phone and got to work. By day's end he had two songs recorded and mixed, and Sit Down, Servant! got the gig, with Big Sugar's Stephane Beaudin on drums. They finished the album, I Was Just Trying To Help, in time for the tour, which turned out to be an excellent opportunity for Johnson to recover the muscle memory on songs he's known most of his life.

'I was able to put the guitar down and play it like a lap steel for half the night. After 30 years of this,' he says, demonstrating his usual guitar-playing position, 'I just switched it to this.' He puts his hands on his lap. 'No strain. As the tour went on I was able to play more and more regular guitar so it turned into a great rehab program for me.'

Johnson, in his late 40s, has been playing guitar for most of his life. Born in Winnipeg to an Air Force family, the Johnsons moved around before settling in the Windsor area. Young Gord was fascinated by music and pestered his parents to buy him an instrument. They got him an electric bass, which he taught himself to play. His next challenge was to get his hands on a guitar, and master it.

For practice, he would flip the radio dial and learn the song that happened to be playing. 'I didn't play songs I liked, I just played whatever came on,' Johnson says. 'To train my ear, I had to figure it out by the time the song ended.'

Although music was not the career his parents envisioned for him, Johnson was determined. By the end of high school, he was performing regularly with far more experienced musicians, often crossing the U.S. border for gigs. He played anywhere, from jazz clubs to weddings.

He moved to Toronto in the mid-1980s and soon formed Big Sugar, initially as a backup band. We weren't trying to be rock ‘n roll stars, Johnson says. That was the time of Nirvana and kids who couldn't even play their instruments. It was all about the haircut and jeans, and it was not really what we were about.

Big Sugar evolved into an alt-rock act infused with blues and reggae influences. Through the 1990s, they sold hundreds of thousands of albums, and had a string of hits, including Diggin' A Hole, The Scene and Turn The Lights On. But, unimpressed with the music industry and beginning to feel numbness in his hand, Johnson called a hiatus a decade ago and retreated to his adopted musical home of Texas.

The musician, his wife and three young children live outside Austin, Texas, where Johnson is a session producer at Willie Nelson's family studio. Among the artists he's booked to work with in the coming weeks are Gov't Mule and North Mississippi All Stars.

Big Sugar was revived a couple of years ago with a fiery new album, Revolution Per Minute, and a tour schedule that kept the band hopping. That's when the wrist problem resurfaced. As soon as I put Big Sugar back together, the numbness came back, Johnson says. It got to the point I couldn't hold a pencil. I couldn't hold a fork. I was dropping my drinks.

Eleven months after the surgery, Johnson is almost back up to his usual speed. The Irene's date marks a brief departure from a cross-Canada tour with Big Sugar, featuring reggae legend Willi Williams. There was also a recent tour with Canuck rockers Wide Mouth Mason, with whom Johnson plays bass, and some gigs over the summer with his noisy Texas-based band, Grady.

'I moved out to the Texas hill country and stopped caring what anybody thought,' Johnson says. 'My shining example of how to run a career is Willie Nelson. You're supposed to do whatever you want. I've been blessed to work with people I admire like Billy Gibbons, Warren Haynes. (Their attitude) sends a very clear message to me to follow your artistic instincts and let the money catch up to you. I sleep better at night, and my flow of artistic ideas is unrestricted when I stop worrying if they'll play it on the radio.'

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