First off. How do I explain Big Sugar? Ummmmmmm. Ok. An eclectic mix of Texas blues, reggae, reggae fusion, southern rock, stoner rock, rock, rock n roll band with horns. To me it might be as if you molded Double Trouble, ZZ Top, Damian Marley, early Chicago, Queens of the Stone Age, and Foghat together in one band. Over the years they have had numerous line up changes, with the only constant being singer/lead guitarist Gordie Johnson. When the band first broke up he moved to Austin Texas and formed the band Gradie. He currently splits his time between 2 bands as he is also the bassist for Wide Mouth Mason, has produced albums for numerous bands including Gov’t Mule, Taj Mahal, Nashville Pussy, and is a valued session musician. Perhaps he is most famous in Canada though for his blistering, electrified version of the Canadian National Anthem.
In my humble opinion they are one of, if not the band that does the best cover versions of older songs. Often, they take an old blues or rock song, but they crank it up a notch or 50. More than one of my top 20 cover songs of all time are done by Big Sugar.
The regular version of this has 1 cd, with 13 previously released songs, and 3 new ones. This review is on the rare, limited edition 2 cd version. Up until today I did not know there were 2 version and I had the rare one. Score. My version has the first cd called Hit with the aforementioned 16 songs. It also contains a 2nd cd called Run. This cd has mostly previously unreleased live performances, with only In My Time Of Dying previously released on the rare El Seven Nite Club cd. It lists 5 songs, however they are actually 11 songs blended together in an spicy jambalaya mix.
The first time I saw Big Sugar my buddy dragged me to a small, smoky, dingy bar in downtown Kitchener sometime in the early 90’s. We had to walk down the stairs and when we got in there, we were packed liked sardines, and it felt like it was 1000 degrees. That was really unfortunate for everyone there, but none other than my buddy, Watch It Buddy. Mark(Watch It Buddy) decided that since Gordie Johnson from Big Sugar was such a fashionable dude(he has a long term sponsorship with Hugo Boss), that he was going to wear a full 3 piece suit to the show. A purple suit no less. Don’t judge, I had one too back in the day. However, I wore a t shirt and I was sweating my nuts off and this dude was in a full suit. As for the band, they must have been Spinal Tap fans and had a bunch of custom amps made. However, Big Sugar’s amps went to 12, not 11. I have been to tons of concerts over the years, but this was, bar none, the loudest concert I have ever attended. It’s one thing to be really loud, but another to also be really f*cking brilliant while doing it. It would be like watching Jimi Hendrix in 1969 with your ear planted firmly against the speaker on the stage. It was also my fist time experiencing reggae fusion music. Before that my reggae was limited to Bob Marley, but this was more like reggae, rap and improv all in one. It was a sweet blend.
For the 13 previously released studio album songs, I will include(in brackets) the liner notes from Gordie Johnson himself as they are interesting.
Sleep In Late. Has an old 40’s blues song theme. Written by friends of the band David Wall and Andrew Whiteman from Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. I chose to include an old video clip. (Recorded two floors below Hypnotic Recordings Studio on a vacant floor of the building. We strung wires out of the 9th floor window and recorded and shot a video in one take…no overdubs)
Ride Like Hell. If you thought after the first song, this band was a blues band, this song will convert you. It has some blues influence, but a much heavier guitar rock flavour.(This was the first song recorded for the ‘500 Pounds’ album. It signals the era of amplifiers blowing up and things catching on fire for Big Sugar)
I’m a Ram. For years I thought this was a Big Sugar song. I love it. Scratch that. I f*cking love it to death. One of the 2 Big Sugar songs in my top 20 covers of all time. Take a great song, and make it harder, edgier and add blistering guitar in and you have my vote. A staple of their live shows, and the one that really hooked me completely the first time I saw them live, and is giving me goose bumps when I listen to it for this review. If you have not heard the original, check out the Al Green version as well.(The ultimate recipe for a Big Sugar song. An old Al Green Memphis Soul classic with a reggae rhythm and 500 lbs of electric guitar. It continues to be a staple in the Big Sugar live show.)
Dear Mr. Fantasy. Why not follow up an awesome cover with another one. The original was a great song. A timeless classic, but it was written in 1967. This is an updated, edgier, raw, heavy guitar oriented version. Also in my top 20.(Good friend and co-writer, Dan Gallagher had suggested this song for ages. When someone at a show in Ottawa ran up to the stage during the encore and told me that Kurt Cobain had died, we decided it was a fitting song.) -For those that did not know him, Dan Gallagher was a popular Video Jockey VJ on the Canadian music station MuchMusic. He was a really funny guy that gave away toasters on his game show, he was host of the Pepsi Power Hour and was in the band Beat Heathens with other Canadian musicians surrounding him. He died in 2001 and I had no idea he was this close and influential on Big Sugar. I now have even more respect for him.
Diggin’ a Hole. I remember when this song came out. It was on every radio station, and still gets played today. It was in rock bars and dance bars. If me and my buddies had enough beers we would actually hit the dance floor. It had the same effect on us as Thunderstruck and Enter Sandman. We could not stand still while listening to it. Awesome heavy bass, killer guitar and amazing harmonica.(A lyrical idea given to me by Dan Gallagher. I first played the music for Mr. Chill in a dressing room in Ventura Beach, CA., on New Years Eve 1995. This was the first song on the Hemivision album that I played on the white Gibson double neck given to me by Alex Lifeson of Rush)
If I had My Way. Gordie skillfully switches between acoustic and electric on this song, Again killer bass and harmonica accentuate the awesomeness of this song. Part way through the song it seems to go off in a Tea Party/The Doors acid trip dream sequence but the guitar chords lead us back home, and the harmonica keeps us there.(The intro was recorded in the parking log of Presence Studio with Mr. Chill and I sitting on chairs, (traffic noise provided by Dan Gallagher). The lyrics of the song are actually parts of two separate songs that I worked on with co-writer Patrick Ballantyne since the mid 1980’s. The musical idea was originally inspired by the old gospel song Samson and Delilah that I first heard recorded by the Reverend Gary Davis)
Open Up Baby. Great harmonica and drums lead this song off, and great guitar is added in for effect.(Years ago, Mr. Chill and I played with Blues artist Wild Child Butler. He had a lot of songs about being locked out and trying to ‘splain your way back in)
The Scene. Great song. Rhythmic drums, chunky bass mixed with great guitar and crowd noise. ‘Nuff said.(Musically, this song started out as a fast version of Ground Hog Day with a chorus grafted on from a very silly song written by Dave Wall and Andrew Whiteman (authors of ‘Sleep In Late’). The record company debated for weeks over the crowd noise in the middle of it. (P.S. I’m six foot one.)
Better Get Used To It. Great background vocals to along with the usually awesome guitar, bass and drums. I love the 70’s style sound from the Les Paul and it may possibly be the best sounding 5 string solo you’ve ever heard. (The chorus was taken from a comedy tape that had been passed around by Dave Wall to all our friends since the 80’s. It took me a while to figure out how many dimes would equal a million dollars! I broke a guitar string during the first take of recordings…this song features a 5 string guitar solo.)
Turn the Lights On. Another bluesy song, with great guitar work, barking and some vocal ad lib. The ad lib is the start of the reggae influence in the band. ( That was the last song written for the ‘Heated’ alubm. It was written in 15 minutes, culled together from pieces of dub mixes that were going to be on the ‘Alkaline’ record. This features Garry Lowe’s first vocal ad-lib.)
Red Rover. As a muscle car fan I am always hooked by a song that starts off with a finely tuned big block V8 rumble and some squealing tires. Then add in a groovy bass line, wailing guitar, and a sweet mix of reggae fusion and I am on board for the ride.(The third verse of Red Rover was taken from the ‘AlKaline’ dub record and served as an inspiration for the rest of the song. The car running in the intro is my 1970 Dodge Charger which is pictured on the inside album jacket of Hemivision.)
Nicotina(She’s All That). “Light It Up” indeed. Nice cars, cigars, beautiful women, killer guitar and harmonica. Very sensual and catchy beat. “She’s my V8 motor, I’m her gasoline”(Everybody has their vices. I suppose we covered ours in this song)
All Hell for a Basement. A song about working the oil rigs in Alberta. This a slower Big Sugar song. I love “slow” songs with a killer guitar and drum beat. I never included this in my favourite songs about Canada. I will now. (I was always intrigued by this turn of phrase used by Rudyard Kipling to describe the oil fields & gas flares in Alberta. It must have seemed like the other side of the world to him – kind of like the modern day Newfoundlanders working on the oil rigs in Northern Alberta
I Want You Now. Another slower Big sugar song. Though previously un released, this is not a filler song. It is quite awesome and belongs on this album. Unique guitar, great background singers, spoken word during the song.
Trouble In The City. Best reggae vibe on the album. This would be an awesome song to sit around a beach resort pool and drink beer to. Everyone can get into it.
Three Minute Song. Fast driving beat. A good song, with unique guitar effects.
Okay side a is done and there is not one filler song on this side.
Run(Disc 2) The first 2(5) songs were recorded in 2002 on the Brothers and Sisters are you Ready tour
Goodbye Train/Hammer in my Hand. Right off the bat it sounds like a great live show. It could easily have fit right in during the Crossroads Festival. Great bluesy guitar oriented killer tunes.
Skull Ring/Joe Louis/Nashville Grass. More bluesy, soul live goodness
I really can’t tell where one song and the other ends on this disc. They could have saved ink and listed these songs as 1. The title could have been “One big, long kickass, bluesy guitar jam.”
The next 3(6) songs were recorded in 2000 on the Alkaline Extra Long Life tour.
I’m a Ram/Rambo(featuring Whitey Don). I already mentioned how much I love this song. This one features an added horn section, which is nice, but seems to be a little softer than most live versions I’ve heard. That’s fine. It’s like early Chicago covering Al Green, which if you’ve ever heard Terry Kath play, you know that I mean it is awesome, when I say it’s fine. Rambo is a catchy, reggae riff that sounds like Whitey Don is singing though a megaphone.
Groundhog Day/Armagideon Time(featuring Willi Williams). The guitar starts off like a 40’s blues song, then gets heavy and blends into a Texas blues, SRV like song. Armagideon Time has a reggae mix, and Willi Williams singing with a sometimes echo effect. I usually hate that effect, but it seems fine here. The song ends with a not too long, but nice guitar solo.
Where Will I Stand/In My Time Of Dying. Reggae beat with a blend of heavy guitar and pounding drums. Kind of like Queens of the Stone Age playing a show in Jamaica with a local band, including a horn section on stage with them. In My Time of Dying is a more traditional bluesy way, mixed with harmonica and 70’s guitar goodness. The guitar sounds more Clapton/Peter Green/Hendrix than Jimmy Page to me, which is good either way, and the vocals sound more Steven Tyler mixed with Bob Marley than Robert Plant. Definitely not a Led Zep copy which is how I would assume most bands would have taken this song. It’s refreshing.
Not a bad song on side b either