Big Sugar Biography
Has there ever been a Canadian band quite like Big Sugar? Who can they be compared to? More pointedly, who can compare to them? Music is a fickle pursuit and it seems that many bands are defined by a single or two, perhaps a couple of albums. In Big Sugar there lies however a more precious commodity. Here is a Canadian act that has aggressively pursued its muse, courting risk at every turn and assuring their future in the process. Always re-inventing, repositioning, re-contextualizing and not once bowing to a challenge, they have never sounded like anything but themselves. For better or worse, from good times to bad and back again, they have become storied and bigger than life – and they have fostered a Great Canadian Eccentric who will eventually become sanctified as such and books will be written about him.
Starting life as a darling of Queen St and shouting the blues in his jazz-inflected three-piece, Gordie Johnson’s Grand Adventure quickly asserted its unique path through the pop culture landscape of the nineties. How jarring it was to hear the spooky, bedeviled howl of “Wild Ox Moan” amidst the excesses of both Grunge on the one side and Dance music on the other. Big Sugar became for us, devotees of new music, a reliably surprising act. Each successive single recapitulated the “otherness” that symbolizes them to this day.
In this desirable residence somewhere above everybody else, Johnson won the freedom to do as he saw fit; making his own scene and waiting for us to fall in. His determination to bring Caribbean sensibilities to the music of the Great White North has made for some bizarre and thrilling spectacle. His effortless appropriation of any style that moved him would find grace in the keen production and uninhibited playfulness of those great singles... and how many of these songs have become as immutable as the land upon which we stand? “Diggin’ a Hole”, “If I Had My Way”, “Turn the Lights On”. Each one is marked by adventurous, almost reckless production – indulgent in all the right ways. Listen to the far-off Sound System piano plodding away behind the band in “Turn the Lights On.” Here Big Sugar attempt that most ill-fated of endeavours – North Parallel Reggae. And they pull it off.
Who else has fought so visibly to evolve and who else has placed such trust in its audience to follow? In the end, it may be this respect for the listener that becomes Big Sugar most. Only a fool would expect the same thing twice from Gordie Johnson and a quick glance at their message board will confirm that a Big Sugar fan is a deeply dedicated one.
Watching the current manifestation of Big Sugar, one will see displaced Newfoundlanders spilling a tear over the stirring and compassionate Celtic hurrah that is “All Hell for a Basement”, while the entire room will unite in dance to the dubbed-up workout of “Nashville Grass”. Then we’re at a Rock Show, and the most versatile band you’ve ever seen is dive-bombing through “Ride like Hell”. Then you remember that somewhere else, in a smaller room filled with the lucky hundred, Johnson could well be extending dub-wise with AlKaline or anguishing a single plaintive note through forty-five minutes of eerie ass-pocket blues.
Or in another even smaller room, he’s presiding over the sound board for a new generation of defiantly self-possessed bands like the Trews, Les Respectables and John Ford – sharing his charmed ear and buying a bucket of chicken to keep everybody’s fingers greasy.
In the end every band must come and go, unless they figure out how to come again. And again. And again.
Big Sugar have lived to see the triumph of their art in Hit & Run.
Any gambler would tremble at the delicious prospect of the long-shot that always wins.