Big Sugar digs roots music

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There are places Gordie Johnson would rather be than “downtown dang old Toronto”, but August in Hogtown does have its compensations, including the annual Caribana festival.

“Great reggae on the street is not so bad,” Big Sugar’s singer-guitarist says, reached on his cellphone during a break in the party.

In fact, great reggae anywhere is all right by Johnson, who says that Big Sugar’s blues-rock sound didn’t fully come together until Jamaican-born bassist Garry Lowe joined in 1994. Despite being the loudest guitarist this side of Jimi Hendrix in his prime, Johnson has always had a deep appreciation for roots music of all stripes—and that comes out especially strongly on Big Sugar’s latest release, Yardstyle.

Out are the Marshall stacks and double-neck electrics; in are acoustic 12-strings, steel guitars, Colin and John Angus MacDonald from the Trews, and half a dozen Caribbean pals, including reggae legend Willi Williams of “Armagideon Time” fame.

Although assembled in a Toronto recording studio, it feels more like something recorded in a Kingston, Jamaica “yard”, or housing project, hence the title. But Johnson stresses that Yardstyle is by no means a Big Sugar reggae album.

“It’s not so much that we were trying to make it be a reggae record,” he explains. “We weren’t trying to make it be anything. You know, I just play the blues when it comes to acoustic music. Mr. Chill [sax and harmonica player Kelly Hoppe], he just plays the blues. Everyone surrounding us, they just play the way they play, and that’s what it sounds like, you know. It’s us in our most unguarded moments.

“This wasn’t made on the advisement of somebody saying, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do for your career,’ ” he continues. “It was more like ‘Hey, we’re doing this anyway.’ On our last national tour we’d sit in the tour bus before a show, or in the middle of the day, or even after a show, and we’d sit around with little hand drums and play guitar and sing songs. And our friends would join us and there’d be a dozen of us sitting around singing songs. And I was like, ‘Man, this is really easy and fun and sounds great. Let’s just do this for a while.’ ”

Yardstyle features several “reverse engineered” Big Sugar classics, a batch of new songs being worked up for a forthcoming electric release, and a pair of covers: Williams’s Rasta anthem “Messenger Man” and Montreal blues artist Shane Murphy’s “Capitola Stress”. But if you’re curious to hear how Johnson’s acoustic incarnation sounds on-stage, you’ll have to wait: it’s not what Big Sugar will be doing when it headlines the Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival this weekend.

“In the summer, when you’re at the big outdoor jams, people want rock ’n’ roll,” Johnson explains. “It’s Canada and they want their rock ’n’ roll loud and proud, so we’re out there giving it to people. But we will make a cross-country tour in January, February, and March. We’ve already got three months of dates on the calendar for a dedicated Yardstyle tour.”

Earplug manufacturers might mourn the prospect, but for lovers of rootsy acoustic music this is reason to rejoice.

Big Sugar headlines the Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival at Deer Lake Park on Saturday (August 9).

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