The softer, soulful side of Big Sugar - Comox Valley Record
Article by Mark Allan
Special to the Record
For Big Sugar’s latest foray to the Comox Valley as part of the Sid Williams Theatre Society’s Blue Circle Series, frontman Gordie Johnson promises to reproduce the unorthodox way the band recorded its most recent CD.
The album is Yardstyle, an acoustic, percussion-heavy collection of 11 languid, soulful acoustic reggae-inspired tunes.
“In Jamaican culture, a yard is a group of tenement houses or shanties around a central dirt square where the well pump is and where you build a fire at night and people cook there,” Johnson explained in a phone interview from his current home state of Texas.
“It’s a cultural reference to the way we strip down our music, and we gathered people around and we sat in a circle and just played songs. The only thing that was missing in the studio was the campfire.”
There probably won’t be a campfire on the Sid Williams Theatre stage March 10, but Johnson said he and other Big Sugar regulars Garry Lowe (bass), Kelly Hoppe (harmonica, sax and melodica), Friendlyness (keyboards) and Stephane Bodean Beaudin (drums) will be joined onstage by several percussionists.
“Our touring version of the band will be eight people,” Johnson said via speakerphone as he drove into Austin. “It really is all acoustic; it’s such an intimate and spiritual kind of a musical event for us. We’re sitting close together.”
It’s really like a folk music performance, he summarized.
“That’s the way we made the record,” Johnson said, indicating it wasn’t necessarily by design.
“By the time we pressed record on the first song, a handful of our Toronto yardies showed up, a couple of the Trews … came wandering in the door.”
“There are 12 people on every song on the record,” Johnson said.
Interlopers were encouraged to grab a drum and join in.
Jamaica’s iconic nyabingi hand drum is a crucial part of Yardstyle’s sound as well as the current tour’s performances.
“The hand drum is the original instrument,” Johnson said. “You don’t need sheet music or schooling to play that instrument. It’s the instrument that’s the most rooted in the human experience.”
Sitting around yardstyle and chanting with several drums is how Big Sugar is at its most comfortable, Johnson said.
“If you were to sneak up on Big Sugar in the wild,” he joked, “you wouldn’t find us jumping around with double-necked guitars and Marshall amps. That’s not what we do when we’re rehearsing or writing or hanging around.
“That (acoustic with hand drums) is what we sound like when we’re sitting around playing for ourselves, which is why it’s so easy to tour like that.”
Big Sugar hasn’t abandoned electricity (Johnson said there’s an electric album in the can), but for Yardstyle and the current tour the band thought, “Hey, why don’t we share this with people? We’re doing it anyway.”
Johnson’s love affair with reggae began many years ago when he lived in the Kensington Market area of Toronto and soaked up Jamaican culture.
Messenger Man, one of Yardstyle’s tracks, is a tribute to Jamaican-born Willi Williams, who wrote the reggae standard Armagideon Time. Williams, a semi-permanent Big Sugar member, was an important part of the recording sessions for Yardstyle and the impending electric release.
Johnson said his left wrist, ravaged with carpal tunnel syndrome from decades of fretting guitars, is feeling much better thanks to the break he got by playing steel guitar in Sit Down Servant.
Johnson is still the bassist for Wide Mouth Mason, although that has tapered as WMM frontman Shaun Verreault spends time with his new child. Grady and Sit Down Servant, other Johnson side projects, are still active.
Big Sugar, which toured in Europe three times last year, is his main performing focus. The band toured Australia last year on a bill with ace guitarist Joe Satriani.
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