I’m a fan of Big Sugar from way back. Probably their first two records are my favourites (which makes me sound like a snob… ah well) but all of them are great!
This disc is a hits set spanning everything up to 2003. If you’ve been following the career of this band at all, most of the songs you’ve heard on the radio or in your friend’s car are all here. What a feast of great jazzy bluesy rawkin’ tunes and guitar mayhem. It covers all the band’s sounds and styles (they have changed a bit, over the years) but it all still works together fantastically.
Apparently this was a 2CD set, Hit being the first disc, which I have here, and Run being a live concert disc (which I did not receive in this copy)… Still, I can’t complain, it was $1.50.
I loved this set, it was awesome. I think this comment on Amazon for this CD summed it up best: “Love it. But don’t play while driving. Got stopped for speeding.”
1 Sleep in Late
2 Ride Like Hell
3 I’m a Ram
4 Dear Mr. Fantasy
5 Diggin’ a Hole
6 If I Had My Way
7 Opem Up Baby
8 The Scene
9 Better Get Used to It
10 Turn the Lights On
11 Red Rover
12 Nicotina (She’s All That)
13 All Hell for a Basement
14 I Want You Now*
15 Trouble in the City*
16 Three Minute Song*
* Unreleased songs.
1 Goodbye Train / Hammer in My Hand
2 Skull Ring / Joe Louis / Nashville Grass
3 I’m a Ram / Rambo
4 Groundhog Day / Armagideon Time
5 Where I Stand / In My Time of Dying
The Taranna Was Hot Series: Part 9/25
Well now, here’s an old friend. Recently I reviewed the first release from this great band, the self-titled Big Sugar. I loved that disc top to bottom, right from first spin back in the day through to my recent spin. Solid gold.
Now, if you can imagine, I’ve gone a long time without a copy of this disc. I know, it’s crazy. I used to own it, but I have no idea where it went. I wouldn’t have ditched it, no way, I loved this record! Anyway, I found this copy at BMV for a paltry $5.99 (it’s worth waaaaay more than that). There it was, just sitting at the front of a row of CDs, calling to me… instant purchase. I’d have dropped the rest of what I had in my hand if this was the only one I could buy that day.
And what did I think of it this time around? Haha silly question. This album fuckin’ smokes.
We roll from the great big sloppy tight slide bluesy bliss of Ride Like Hell, through to the bass vocal/steel guitar blues majesty of Ride On. Along the way, it’s a glorious romp through all the blues styles hell, even surf/reggae, on AAA Aardvark Hotel, and soul on Deliver Me) that please most, done perfectly and with a helluva lot of soul and understanding of the form.
A perfect record… can such a thing even exist? Yes it can, folks, and this is one.
I’m in love all over again.
Tracks: Ride Like Hell / Standing Around Crying / I’m A Ram / Sugar In My Coffee / All Over Now / AAA Aardvark Hotel / How Many Times / Deliver Me / Still Waitin’ / Wild Ox Moan / Ride On
How long have I loved this CD? Well, this being their first record, it saw release in 1991*…25 years ago… Holy hell. Seems like yesterday.
Here’s some Wiki history on their beginnings:
Big Sugar officially formed in 1988 in Toronto, Ontario, consisting of vocalist and guitarist Gordie Johnson, bassist Terry Wilkins, and drummer Al Cross, though the three musicians had already played together for several years as a supporting band for Molly Johnson’s jazz performances and as an informal jam band with members of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir**. After Molly Johnson returned to rock music with Infidels, she helped her former bandmates to secure a record deal; their eponymous debut album was released in 1991 on Hypnotic Records.
This ace in my collection is such a thrill, a bluesy, jazzy swish of gorgeousness. Am I overstating? Hell no. This is before Big Sugar went full-on loud guitar blues and more mainstream stuff, and well before they took up reggae. It’s tasteful, smart, and perfectly realized. This record has a feel. I’m not even sure how to properly describe it, except that whenever it plays I am transported to its time and place, and the tracks pull me into their strong circle and hold me there. Gordie Johnson’s perfect guitar and vocals, Terry Wilkins’ smooth bass, and the always excellent drumming of Al Cross make this a stone cold classic.
I remember when I first got this album, at the big HMV at 333 Yonge in Taranna. I’d heard of it but not heard any of it. In those days (I was still in high school), this was taking a real chance, buying a full price CD on spec. But as you well know, I’m always soaking in jazz and the blues, and this record became an instant friend of mine, the kind with whom you can pick up a conversation as though no time has passed between visits, even though a lot of time might have actually passed. They’re best friends without even needing to call them that. That kind of friend.
I don’t have enough superlatives to cover this gem. It’s one of my favourite Canadian albums. Hell, it’s one of my favourite albums ever. There is nothing so wrong in this life that this record cannot make better.
Over the top? No way. This is greatness!
You need this.
Sleep in Late (Dave Wall, Andrew Whiteman)
Come Back Baby (B.B. Arnold)
Motherless Children (traditional)
So Many Roads (Marshall Paul)
Bemsha Swing (Denzil Best, Thelonious Monk)
Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael, Mitchell Parish)
Groundhog Day (Gordie Johnson)
Just About Sunrise (Johnson)
Goodbye Train (Johnson)
Nowhere to Go (Colin Linden)
‘Round Midnight (Bernie Hanighen, Monk, Cootie Williams)
Devil Got My Woman (Skip James)
* Wiki says 1991, but the CD says 1992.
** This reminds me I need to review the BTC album Superior Cackling Hen, too.
I never thought I’d get to this point in my relationship with Big Sugar. I went over this in my last Big Sugar review, but to briefly recap: I saw them eons ago and it was way too loud and I was overly bitter about it for a long-ass time. I begrudgingly admitted that they were good before I finally saw them again a few years ago and liked them just fine. Now we are here. They’re just a band that comes to town sometimes, and we went because we kinda felt like it. How mature and boring.
The real reason we went to this show was because a friend from Saskatoon had tickets, but wound up wanting to unload them when Big Sugar subsequently booked a Saskatoon date. Being a magnanimous sort, I bought her tickets because there’s nothing I like more than helping out a friend when it involves no effort whatsoever on my part. I really am a great person. She’s lucky to know me.
I have mentioned before that I buy tickets in advance in order to force myself to go to things; staying home almost always seems like the better option when showtime rolls around, even for shows I like. And on this particular day, my goodness. Not only was it Valentine’s Day – a day when I would much rather not go anywhere that people are – but as luck would have it, it snowed a ton. It started right as I woke up and carried on all damn day. I was very tempted to call the whole thing off, but Mika had a great idea for a Valentine’s Day present for me – she got us a cab to and from the show. This was possibly the best idea ever had. I am not certain my car would have made it. The cab driver had troubles, including an inability to pull into my driveway for fear that he’d never make it back out.
This idea was not without its flaws. We decided to eat supper at the casino, because I don’t learn from my father’s questionable ideas. This plan was put into jeopardy when everyone else in the city had the same idea to call a cab at the same time, and it took nearly an hour for the cab to show up. And once we were on the way, the driver asked if he could stop at his house to grab his cellphone and a shovel, in case he got stuck. I said that was fine. It’s winter in Saskatchewan, so that’s what you do. I guess. He turned the meter off, which I guess is what’s important. We arrived late to the casino and checked out the line at the restaurant, which turned out to be non-existent. I guess that makes sense. Seniors like to eat at the casino; Big Sugar does not attract seniors, so there was room for us. I shoved a clubhouse sandwich down my foodhole and we raced to the show lounge, walking in to applause because we arrived at the exact same time as the band. Now I know how Dave felt after peeing during The Mist.
We took our seats and found that we had no tablemates. A delightful surprise, though there were a small number of visible empty seats in the crowd. I’m guessing a lot of people didn’t want to venture out in the weather (or couldn’t – highways around Regina were closed).
The table nearest us, I… you know, I don’t even know if I wish they hadn’t shown up or if I’m super glad they did. I just don’t know. It was two couples. The first girl took selfies all night long. She bought us a round of drinks. She high-fived people on her way to the bathroom and back. Upon returning, she said “if Security asks, I’ve been here all along.” The two guys were as excited for Big Sugar as anyone I’ve ever seen, with lots of WOOs and YEAHs. Actually, the whole table was like that. They ordered 38 beers among the four of them. I do not know why she bought us drinks. Random friendly gesture? A pre-emptive make-good since they were expecting to be obnoxious? Can we be bought with a Diet Coke and a rum & Coke? Pretty much, yes. Anyway, they were something else.
Back (?) to the show. The band was gathered all on stage, all dressed head to toe in white. The look was unexpected and eye-catching; it also made Mika think that they all kind of looked like they were members of the Guilty Remnant. Even better, she came to this realization during the song 100 Cigarettes.
There was no sign of Shaun Verrault and Safwan Javed of Wide Mouth Mason, who have played with the band in the past and who I thought might have become permanent band members. I must confess I am do not keep up to date on the Big Sugar starting roster. But even keeping that in mind, I did not expect there to be three children in the band. And not “children” like how I refer to 20-year-olds because I am aging and defensive; literal children. Lead singer Gordie Johnson’s children, as it turned out; his son on drums and two daughters singing backup.
In my last Big Sugar recap, I raised an eyebrow about the skinny white dreadlocked guy singing in the faux-Jamaican accent, looking like a Rastafarian version of Mr. Lonely. I did the same thing time. I don’t think he’s a bad guy or anything, I just see that and I think “…you sure about this?” If nobody else has a problem with this, then I shouldn’t either, I guess.
In the interest of not getting off on a bad foot with my Big Sugar pals, I’ll mention now that at their merchandise table, they have it set up so that fans can sign up with WorldVision and sponsor needy children in Jarso, Ethiopia. You can check out more information here: http://artistcollective.ca/artists/big-sugar/
As for the show itself, it was an all-acoustic set, which was about as far removed from that first Big Sugar show as it could be. It started off on a dubious note for me, as they were sounding less like a rock band with some reggae influences and more like a reggae band. Which is great, if that’s your thing. It’s not really my thing. Eventually, they moved into more of a straight up (acoustic) rock show. They didn’t play a ton of singles – not that I’ve ever been a big fan, but I only recognized three songs all night (Diggin’ A Hole, All Hell For A Basement, and Little Bit a All Right). I think Mika knew a few more. They didn’t close with O Canada, which is something I thought they always did. I know they also played a Grady song, but I only know that because Gordie said so. He also ad-libbed a few jokey bits (in that way where it probably wasn’t an ad-lib, but something he does at every show); one about run-ins with cops (“they really like that Diggin’ A Hole song/but they don’t like that our tour bus smells like Cheech & Chong”) and a few lines of an impression of Gordon Lightfoot singing All Hell For A Basement. I thought that part was super funny and now I really want to hear Lightfoot cover that song. I think it could possibly work really well. And at one point, Gordie said “alllllright” and the girl who bought us drinks loudly said “alllllright” and Gordie asked if they were making fun of him, but he acknowledged that he’d worked his entire career just to make a woman say “alllllright.”
Ultimately, I declare this show to be “fine.” I preferred the last Big Sugar show. I know two people who attended the Saskatoon show and they were blown away by it, and I assume the shows were pretty similar, so maybe you should listen to them and not to me. I don’t think “fine” is a negative review, but these folks were raving. I’m not raving. It was fine. Glad we went. Glad we took a cab.
You may remember the drunken texts I was on the receiving end of during the Glass Tiger show. Well, watching TV after Big Sugar, I texted that fellow – to let him know that the Soorp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Apostolic Church in Boston was closed due to snow, of course – and I found that he’d been drinking. I told him about the Big Sugar show and he replied “Glad thencpncertbwas good despite the whites” which is about the best way I’ve ever heard an evening described.
• Dan Mangan + Blacksmith w/Hayden and Astral Swans (March 7)
• Amelia Curran w/Ryan Boldt (March 27)
• The God That Comes (April 3)
• Danko Jones w/The Lazys (April 10)
• The Joel Plaskett Emergency w/Mo Kenney (May 15)
• Charley Pride (May 20)
• Chubby Checker & The Wildcats (September 26)
These guys. My goodness.
Many years ago – all the way back in SLCR #8 – I saw Big Sugar and they were way too loud for the venue. Alternate (and equally possible) history: I was a giant wimp. My ears hurt for three days after the show, and I wrote what would prove to be the most negative concert review in my long and storied history. "Mediocre music at head-flattening decibels," I said. "The lead singer was a real prick," I said. "The most annoying band in Canadian music history."
Okay, even acknowledging that it was written in an innocent, pre-Bieber era, that last one was ridiculously ridiculous. I was just in a bad mood. Regardless, one day's surly opinion was on the internet forever, and it proved to be very controversial. I got upwards of TWO negative emails from random web surfing Big Sugar fans. Sadly, all I saved for the ages was an exchange with Sexy Studmuffin (firstname.lastname@example.org), who – in between telling me about the sex that he has with ladies – said "Big Sugar is the only reason I ever read your boring web-hole. Don’t come to a Big Sugar show. WE DON’T WANT YOU THERE!"
Since he was kind enough to give me the gift of a wonderful quote I can put on the back of the concert review collection book that I will never actually put together, I assured him I would never go back to a Big Sugar show. And 14 years later, I went back on my word. I hope he can forgive me.
See, I never really hated those guys. I liked some songs of theirs before the concert, and I liked some of their newer songs after that night. It was just wrong show, wrong night, and while it left me with a bad impression, I really wondered what it would be like to see them again. They split up for some time, but when the inevitable reunion tour brought them to the casino, I knew I had to go. And I bought earplugs within minutes of ordering the tickets online. Not that I needed to – when the server brought us our drinks before she show, she warned us that it was going to be loud and earplugs were available at the merchandise table. I never went and looked, but if they were actual Big Sugar-branded earplugs, I'm a little sorry I didn't buy any.
The first time I saw Big Sugar was also my first time seeing Big Rude Jake, which made the whole evening a net positive no matter how much my ears hurt. This time, our opener took us all the way back to SLCR #7 and Wide Mouth Mason. Like Big Rude Jake, they became an instant favourite from the first time I saw them. Opening for Big Sugar would mark the eighth time I've seen them, and the first show since bassist Earl Pereira left the band, only to be replaced by… Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson. Convenient, that.
This is the part where I'd like to talk about how much I enjoyed Wide Mouth Mason's set. Instead, it's the part where I get to talk about how it was the weakest Wide Mouth Mason show I've ever seen and was enough to make me think that I'd skip them next time they're in town. And I'm not willing to pin all the blame on Gordie, either.
I knew we were in trouble when I listened to No Bad Days, the newest Wide Mouth Mason album. Actually, I knew it even before that, when I saw the album artwork – a top contender for the worst I've ever seen. I haven't had any luck finding a decent high-resolution copy online (haven't looked real hard, either), but Gordie and drummer Safwan Javed are shooting lasers out of their eyes at photoshopped graffiti. Meanwhile, if lead singer Shaun Verrault murdered the person who did… THAT to his hair, no jury would convict him. The only acceptable excuse for that hair is if you're wrestling on the Superstation and you want a blade job to show up well on camera.
Setting aside the aesthetics, I didn't care for the sound of the album either. It seemed like they'd given up on writing interesting songs and instead figured they could say anything as long as they tried to play all funky-like. I understand that, but it's not my thing. "I dare anyone to tell us it's not the best record we've ever made," said Verrault from the stage. Well, I'm here to tell you that… I pussed out entirely. I mean, I have no interest in starting a fight with the guy, you know? Instead, I'll hide behind the internet and say that No Bad Days wasn't all that good. That'll show him.
I will say that live, I enjoyed the new songs better than the old ones. I had no expectations for the new songs. The old songs, though, the ones I know and like, they were off. They all felt like they were being played too slowly, and not in a "stylistic choice" sort of way. Verrault, in particular, seemed a lot more interested in making guitar solo faces and poses than actually playing. So that was disappointing.
One brief intermission and I popped my earplugs in. Big Sugar (including Verrault and Javed) took the stage and launched into their first song. It sounded pretty good! Tentatively, I removed an earplug, and…
When I was a little kid, I saw a horror/suspense movie on Superchannel called Visiting Hours. It scared the tar out of me, so my dad liked to torment me by putting the movie on, or even just telling me that it was about to come on. About 25 years later, I saw that the movie was playing on TV. I had to tape it! I knew that it wouldn't be the same as it was when I was 8 (or thereabouts), but I had to watch it and see if it was even remotely scary to adult me. And I had my answer as soon as the opening credits made it to "also starring William Shatner." And this is as close as I can come to explaining the feeling I had when I took my earplugs out. All that fuss for THIS? It was pretty loud for a casino show, but that's not saying too much. But I suppose the band's lineup is different, they've all aged, and the casino probably doesn't lend itself well to playing as loud as you possibly can. At any rate, secure in the knowledge that my ears would be just fine, I left my earplugs out for the duration of the show.
It was an odd mix of people on stage. I looked over my old review, and I don't remember Gordie Johnson looking quite so much like a cross between Willie Nelson and Silent Bob. And I definitely don't remember the white guy with the dreadlocks singing in the faux-Jamaican accent. I don't know how I feel about this guy. I mean, he seemed really happy and I'm sure he's a nice guy. But to quote this weekend's Saturday Night Live (I knew writing this review two months late would pay off), "if there's such a thing as a loving form of racism, I think you've found it."
But having said all that, I thought Big Sugar was pretty decent. They played most of their hits and a selection of their new songs (I wonder if I can make a macro that will insert that sentence into every concert review I ever write) and I really don't feel like nitpicking any more than I already have. I enjoyed all the songs, the band is obviously very talented, and the crowd loved them. And they even brought their (pre-encore) broadcast day to a close with a rendition of O Canada, which was a nice touch. So yeah, me and Big Sugar, I think we're cool now. Not so sure that Wide Mouth Mason will feel the same, though.