For a period in the mid-nineties I was dating a very talented artist and a wonderful person all-around named Christine who happened to be into much cooler music than I was. I was playing in a few bands and just starting to teach guitar while she was in the process of shifting her life from record store employee to highly-trained professional artist and medical illustrator. We spent the bulk of our relationship trying to figure out if we were actually in a relationship or not…and going to a lot of concerts, most of which were mind-expanding first-time experiences for me under her bashful-yet-all-knowing musical wing.
Christine introduced me to Bill Frisell, Lyle Lovett, Tricky, the entire genre of lounge music, and a host of other amazing things that I had been needing to hear. On March 15th, 1997 Christine introduced me to Big Sugar, quite literally. Well, sort of. I had seen the band once before opening for The Allman Brothers Band but when I tagged along to the Ottawa Congress Centre as Christine’s +1 I got to witness a full-on headlining Big Sugar show, which felt much like an introduction (Christine got free passes to a lot of local shows through her record store gig and her general friendliness).
And you know, I just can’t see why Big Sugar remained little in the eyes and ears of popular rock and roll. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even introduced the opening act – Weeping Tile – who deserve special mention for a) having the lovely Sarah Harmer as a member, and b) being a pretty splendid band all-around. Though the anonymous opening forty-five minutes to many headline act waiting periods are often wallpapered with a sonic peripheral to the beer lines and General Admission vantage-point experiments, Weeping Tile provided a bona fide centrepiece to the supporting slot experience, delivering an interesting and harmonious soundtrack to the early evening.
And then Big Sugar mounted the temporary stage and turned the boring, accordion-walled conference hall into a barrelhouse barroom with a guitar-driven blues-tinged slab of sound that was a mile thick. Not only can Gordie Johnson really, really play, his guitar tone is absolutely monstrous. It’s a humbucking hollow-bodied Marshall sound that thunders like the soles of Godzilla’s shoes and soars like a low-flying planet. And get this: where most guitar players clamour to endorse the latest guitar string or boutique amplifier company, Gordie Johnson was wrapped up in a deal with tailor Hugo Boss. So while he stood up there snarling out super-chunky rock and roll he looked damn fine doing it.
Oh, and what a band! Over the years Johnson enlisted more than fifty musicians to be members of Big Sugar, and the guys that stood behind Gordie at this show made him sound like a million bucks, with special mention to harmonica-dude Kelly Hoppe and the very groovy (unfortunately late) Garry Lowe on bass.
So like I say, I can’t believe the band wasn’t more ubiquitous. Do you remember their hit If I Had My Way? Can you name the band that Gordie Johnson fronts now?* See…they aren’t very famous. And now they are no more.
But Big Sugar was fun while it lasted, as are most things when viewed in the rearview mirror.
By the time Christine and I actually nailed down whether or not we were officially dating (as it turns out, we were) we were broken up, living in different cities, and set to begin our unique own spirals down rather different paths. I know this because we are fortunate to have remained friends, a likely product of spending most of our relationship thinking we were just that.
And we saw a lot of great shows, that’s for sure.