The blues lives, alongside rock & reggae
by Kortney Jmaeff
When it comes to the blues as a musical genre, it's all been done before. It's all about the same four chords, melancholy messages, and straight ahead rhythms. It's as stale as old bread, and should be relegated to the history shelves, right?
I used to have these thoughts in the past but it was bands like Big Sugar that helped me change my mind. I remember the first CD that I ever purchased was their Hemivision album back in 1994. I was a teenager and the $20 price tag seemed like a king's ransom to me but when I first gave it a listen, I was blown away. The heavy blues guitars mixed with rock/alternative vibes and flourishes of reggae grooves were quite a potent mix to these earbuds. The Big Sugar crew knew how to combine a blues base into an interesting modern day platter.
I also wanted to test my "blues is dead theory" with Big Sugar front man Gordie Johnson. I asked him if he thought the blues was advancing in a positive direction in 2023 and beyond.
"What direction do you think Latin is going, is it a dead language? It's a language that most modern day languages are based upon. There are still scholars who speak and study it. I feel the same way about the blues. In its purest form, it's where I hear true beauty and majesty.
It's fascinating to think about what the original form of the blues is. It's been the blues a lot longer than we've been calling it that. Some people think that it started with Muddy Waters and the Chicago Blues, but it goes on much longer than that. I think that the path starts to diverge and becomes a new thing when it gets to Johnny Winter or Led Zeppelin. It then becomes rock and roll or even heavy metal. Black Sabbath is certainly more informed by blues guitar playing than other forms of metal. Some metal music has nothing to do with the blues whatsoever."
I was also curious about where Gordie's love of the blues started and who were his idols were at a young age."I grew up right across the river from Detroit, In the seventies, FM rock and roll radio became an enormous industry. These weren't your mom and dads' Top 40 hits AM radio stations. I heard Jimi Hendrix , Eric Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, mingled with Frank Zappa and the Allman Brothers. The stations weren't just looking to play hits- they were just playing entire rock records. Everything changed when I first heard Rush. It's when I really went, 'okay, I'm really doing this!' My first live concert was Rush in 1978. I lost my mind because they were so amazing live."
I also wondered if Big Sugar had any bands that Gordie considered to be peers."No. I can think of a lot of other bands where there is a desire to blend influences and make something new from them. There are other modern reggae based bands, but they don't sound like Big Sugar. In the nineties, we did get some comparisons to Sublime, because they did have a little reggae flavor. I hated hearing that comparison because it wasn't where we were coming from.Speaking of clothes, one thing that made Big Sugar stand out in the grunge era was how their finely tailored suits stood out against the standard flannel and jeans grunge uniform of the day. I asked Gordie about his past sponsorship with Hugo Boss.
I also hated when they called us "white guys playing reggae". What are you talking about? I'm the only white guy. My band immigrated from Jamaica in 1976. They've never even been to a hockey game or know who Led Zeppelin was. Just calm down.
Music isn't race and race isn't music. Was Jimi Hendrix Black or American Indian? It doesn't really matter to us. We never looked at it that way. We never thought it would be cool to mix some reggae with the blues in our music. We didn't have that conversation.
In the nineties, we started making records and had a great deal of success and got pretty well known. But we didn't sound like anybody else and were easily 10 and 20 years older than any other band on the circuit at the time. We weren't welcome to the party. We really didn't fit in as we were a bit of an outlier. We didn't sound 'alternative.' We didn't wear the standard grunge clothes.
"In the early nineties, the two worlds of fashion and pop culture were just starting to collide. I have always been fascinated with the way the fashion world operates. It's very different from the way other forms of entertainment functioned.Related to cutting it close, when Big Sugar arrived in Calgary on December 29 at the Palace Theatre, they only had 20 minutes to sort it out before playing their first set. The challenges of travels from Saskatchewan through a frigid Canadian winter created a perfect storm for the now three piece group to groove on. Of course, Gordie handled the guitar and lead vocal parts. Bass and backup vocal duties were handled by Ben Lowe, son of longtime original bassist Gary Lowe, may he rest in peace. "Root" Valachi completes the three piece from behind the drum kit.
It all started when a Hugo Boss representative walked up to me at an awards show. He was like, 'You are in a band? But why are you wearing a suit?' I answered, 'Because what the other bands are wearing sucks. I shined my shoes and wore an Armani suit because I'm at an event.'
We met at his office the next day. It became a real collaboration beyond just getting some new suits. I got a chance to get really hands on with it. We put a lot of thought into what we were wearing when we wore it. When we did our gig with the Rolling Stones, we spent half a day in wardrobe and zero time rehearsing."
The tour was in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their Heated album, released way back in 1998. Throughout their two full sets, they played the album in its entirety, along with other Big Sugar favorites like "Ride like Hell" and "All Hell for a Basement." The original Heated songs were a little slower than the original recordings with a little more reggae inflection in the mix. After a quarter century, it was refreshing to hear Big Sugar light it up with their potent mix of blues, rock and reggae. That night, the original spirit of the blues was alive and well in the downtown core of Calgary. Here's to another 25 years of Big Sugar. The blues is dead, long live the blues.
See more about Big Sugar at their website.
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