It has been years since I’d seen Big Sugar play, somehow, after a photographic and loosely-personal history with them spanning back to days when I photographed bands with a point and shoot 35mm camera and thought that was pretty cool. Heck I even got roped into selling merch for them a couple times, which means I kind of missed being able to watch the actual show, but luckily this is the loudest band on earth so I could at least still hear them playing in the next room. There are a lot of things that have always stuck with me about this band. Marveling at singer/guitarist Gordie Johnson’s lavish rack of Gibson SG guitars in every colour and neck quantity it seems. Another is their cool collaborations in the insular little musical Canadian family of players (one of whom was responsible for Johnson’s slick new haircut, which he got just before the show that day). Yet another is their odd blend of styles – blues, rock and reggae – that they have squashed together, chewed up and deftly painted back out into something unique and recognizably theirs. Certainly not least, the band’s talent is just out of this world. Featuring a cast of members that has changed out a little over the years, the core members of Johnson, bassist Garry Lowe and keyboardist/saxophonist/harmonica player/microphone-holder Kelly Hoppe (aka Mr. Chill) have remained throughout, and it shows through how well they flow with one another through the show.
First things first though – the opening band! I had been a little tied up at home and almost didn’t go to see them play, but at the last second, I watched a couple of videos and that was enough to have me put aside any other duties I might have had to go out and see them. Hailing from Antwerp, Belgium, Triggerfinger was hauled across Canada by Big Sugar, and what a fitting support group they are! They’re kind of an unlikely bunch of rapscallions, and are way, way heavier than they look like they should be. This band is phenomenally entertaining to watch, and from what I can see, kind of a big deal back in their homeland. This may be a bit like how it’s possible for a Canadian band to be absolutely huge here, and virtually unknown anywhere else on earth. The Commodore Ballroom was already packed, and I’m certain everyone was suitably impressed. They certainly had some pretty oddball things happening on stage, largely stemming from wild drummer Mario Goossens, who I believe I spotted at one point licking the lapel of his boldly-striped suit jacket, and later on, getting into a two-dogs-fighting-over-a-bone style tug-of-war with singer/guitarist Ruben Block, each of whom were biting one side of a cymbal that was still attached to Goossens’ kit. Gah, my teeth hurt just thinking about it! He also summoned the audience into a cheering frenzy after Block introduced him, and was nothing short of a flurry of limbs and sweat-flinging hair the rest of the time. The whole band was pretty stylish, dressed in smart suits. Block accented his all-black attire with a rock n roll shot of shining gold boots, somewhat echoing the gold pick guard on one of his guitars, contorting his body around into precarious positions while playing and casting smoldering glances into the crowd. The bass player, who I basically see referenced everywhere simply as Mr. Paul, took turns around the stage, randomly throwing devil horns. Musically, they have a bold, loud, swaggering southern-rock-tinged vibe with juicy vocals, big licks, molasses-slow slumbery heartbeating extended jams and high spirits. They did actually cite Big Sugar as an influence on their music. How about that? Go check them out please. Let’s bring them back to town.
With Big Sugar’s entrance imminent, the audience started to get fairly rowdy, clambering to the front for a better and closer view. The fandom is well and truly alive! It was also getting mighty smoky in the room, which isn’t exactly unexpected. On stage, the band’s big reggae influence is reflected in the red, yellow and green of Jamaica plastered all over amps and keyboards. They played through a variety of music, including a huge host of their older tunes, and not all of them just the big singles! I was not the only one who fluttered with glee when they announced they were about to play “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “All Hell For A Basement,” for example. The music still thumps through your very heart, literally and figuratively, as they play. It took me a while to realize that all the guys on stage were dressed similarly, in mostly-black ensembles with brimmed black hats. Johnson sometimes plucked the hat off in a bow to thank the audience between songs. His guitar playing is mesmerizing. He can handle those things quite unlike anyone else. A double-neck guitar to me always seems like the most unwieldy thing, but his fingers prance around the strings like butterflies flitting about dewy petals. Hoppe is always up to something different and you really have to keep an eye on him to not miss some instrument he picks up and expertly works. A routine they have always done is have Hoppe bring out the head of an effects-laden mic to Johnson for some co-singing on “Diggin’ A Hole.” Again, they always do it, but somehow it never gets old. They snuggle right up into each other’s faces to sing into the hazy microphone. Lowe is generally pretty mellow, but now and again, he’d crack a grin and glance around at his bandmates. The stupendous ball of energy that is DJ Friendlyness was a new body on stage for me. Mostly, he was responsible for keys, but the long-dreadlocked, bespectacled fellow could also be seen smacking (and occasionally kicking) a tambourine, and also popping out from behind the keys to crank out some reggae vocals or contribute to pumping up the crowd. Any time to look over to him, he’s grinning ear to ear, waving his hands, or pumping a fist in the air while adoringly watching Johnson tear through a guitar riff. This band just oozes cool and talent and warmth.
They played a pretty long set, but still left the room wanting more and more. Johnson referenced having a Canadian-style good time and wanted to turn this into a good old-fashioned Canadian kitchen party. Overall, it was a total dream of a set list. I don’t think I could have curated the set better to my own liking. At the end of the main set, “All Hell For A Basement” rang out and was still chiming away when the band all subtly removed their hats and squalled right into another old trick up their sleeves – a big, guitar-wailing version of “Oh Canada.” You could feel a million hearts exploding in the room (well, about 900 hearts I suppose). People sang their guts out, and to cap it, Johnson hoists that white doubleneck guitar up like it’s a cardboard cut out, pops it over his head to reveal a Canadian flag painted in black across the back, and keeps on playing the anthem. It blows my mind enough when people do that with a regular guitar, but a doubleneck?! Ridiculous. The audience was mad for it. The band assembled for a bow, waved, and took their leave…
…but not for long. Shortly they popped back for a brief encore, featuring big hit “The Scene,” which led into a kind of preachy/gospelly blues break, touched back on a bit of the brothers and sisters are you ready? intro to “Red Rover” (that song had been played much earlier in the set), then meandered back into “The Scene.” Ruben Block was back out to add to the guitar attack, and he was, if anything, even more animated than before, popping wild wide eyes and falling back over Johnson’s shoulders in a silent scream. At the end of this, he joined the rest of Big Sugar for another bow, a few more waves, and Johnson pulling a World Vision brochure out of thin air to ask the crowd to consider sponsoring a child, something quite dear to him. They left that room much better than when they came. What a band. Go Canada.