By Mariko Margetson
There was magic flying every which way when Big Sugar played to an ecstatic crowd at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom on Friday, September 8. There has always been magic between Gordie Johnson and the eclectic crew of talent that call themselves Big Sugar, but this was a new kind of magic; a sort of shiny alchemy to complement their newest, blissful transformation.
For fans in the know, the change was apparent from the moment all five dapper musicians stepped onto the stage. For starters, long time bassist and Rastafarian, Gary Lowe had chopped off his notorious silver dreadlocks and was rocking a fedora, while still on the bass line every time. Second, there was no saxophone. Seriously. Kelly Hoppe, aka Mr. Chill has decided to test the waters of retirement after fourteen years of blending his seductive brass chops with various incarnations of the Big Sugar ensemble. DJ Friendliness was also absent, now putting all his attention into the reggae roots troupe called The Human Rights.
New additions include the Latin American flavor of congo drums, courtesy of Texas native Ray Arteaga as well as subliminal textures of sound and languid presence of Alex Johnson, front man Gordie Johnson’s sexy, significant other. In the middle of this revolution, drummer Chris Gormley assumes the role of rock steady nucleus.
Most of the magic still emanates from the extraordinary, mind blowing guitar skills of Gordie Johnson, who captivates from the moment he sets foot on stage. That night in Vancouver he stormed the stage sporting one of his signature double neck guitars and just let it rip, howling about being back and letting go. Admittedly, I don’t know all the songs in the Big Sugar Catalog, but there was something about this first song that felt fresh and seemed to serve as a declaration for where the band was at this moment in time. Like a mission statement for the evening.
I counted four different guitars that graced Gordie Johnson’s well-dressed shoulders that evening; two of which were double necks, including the notorious cream colored Gibson with the Canadian flag on the backside he purchased before a show in Edmonton some ten years ago. He calls it Nemesis and the wizardry on display when she’s in his loving arms is worth the price of admission and then some.
I must also confess that before September 8, I hadn’t fully appreciated the songs from Big Sugar’s eclectic catalog that would be considered reggae. I now consider myself converted thanks to a set brimming with tunes that spanned all edges of the band’s life span. Perhaps the void left by Kelly Hoppe and DJ Frienlyness had forced elements of showmanship to the wings and forced the fledgling five-some to reveal themselves. Hence the magic sparks flying from musician to musician, wife to husband, fan to performer, and husband to wife.
Early in the evening Gordie takes a sip of clear liquid from a dark green bottle and grins.
It’s just water He exclaims, holding it up for us to see. Who knew it tasted so good!
He then stepped up to the mic and told us he was going to play lots of new songs this evening, starting with one about a female super hero called Wonder Woman. They followed that beauty with a crowd pleasing rendition of Roads Ahead and seamlessly fused together a playlist of hits and new jams that had us die hards stomping and grooving and vying for a better view. There is something about the way Gordie Johnson moves when he’s cradling a guitar that makes it very difficult to concentrate on anything else. For some of us.
Near the end of the set, Gordie informs the audience he has a treat for us, which turns out to be an impossibly tall bass player he introduces as Big Ben. According to the set list I scrambled to get a photo of at the end of the night, Big Ben also goes by the moniker Benno. At any rate, the guest performer, who doubles as the sound checker, helped Gordie raise the roof for an energetic interpretation of the rollicking tune Ride Like Hell, which was hands down the highlight of the evening until that point. And judging by the playful manner in which the three minute ditty turned into an extended jam session, it was a highlight for the band as well.
Somehow, the night got even better. They followed that with the anthemic kitchen jam All Hell for A Basement and ended the set with Gordie furiously having his way with Nemesis before doing his signature move of showing the audience her maple leaf underbelly whilst playing it over his head and behind his back. Like a legend.
The encore, which was short and sweet, opened with my favorite Big Sugar ditty If I had My Way, which got the crowd singing along. It closed with an intense version of the hit On the Scene, which seemed to echo the opening sentiment. Whatever you thought this band was, let it go, because this is who they are now and they are here to stay.
And in case there was any confusion over whether or not this band lacked conviction, Gordie embraced Nemesis one last time for a final solo jam and unleashed some moves that made their earlier dance seem like a waltz. To an inexperienced observer he may have seemed like a man possessed, but in my humble opinion, he seemed more like a man sharing with a room full of people what it’s like to be blessed.