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Put some Big Sugar in your SummerFest

By: Matthew Herst, for NorthernLife.ca

 | Aug 15, 2014 - 2:01 PM |
Since the early 1990s, Gordie Johnson and the boys from Big Sugar have been delivering their unique brand of blues, rock, reggae, soul and dub. The group headlines the Aug. 23 show at this year's Summerfest. Photo supplied

Since the early 1990s, Gordie Johnson and the boys from Big Sugar have been delivering their unique brand of blues, rock, reggae, soul and dub. The group headlines the Aug. 23 show at this year's Summerfest. Photo supplied

Reggae blues rockers bring sweet sounds to Sudbury

Ask Big Sugar's Gordie Johnson what it takes to convince him to go through the hassle of loading gear and jetting off to some far-flung gig, and the answer you get might be exactly what you expect: Not much.

"We just love to play wherever there is a show," Johnson told NorthernLife.ca last week. "We always jump at the chance to get on a plane to play."

Formed in 1988 with Johnson, bassist Terry Wilkins and drummer Al Cross, the group started as the backing band for Molly Johnson during her jazz days. When she turned to rock and formed Infidels, she helped the group get its first record deal.

Now with Johnson on guitar and vocals, Garry Lowe (bass), Kelly "Mr. Chill" Hoppe (harmonica/sax/melodica), Friendlyness (keyboards/toasting) and Stephane Bodean Beaudin (drums), Big Sugar's sound has evolved gradually over the years. The 1990s saw the group churning out a raw blues sound that was heavy and loud — perfect for live performance.

But as the year's rolled on, the sound grew and blossomed into an eclectic monster that still maintains that thunderous live performance for which the Big Sugar is known, but incorporates reggae, dub and soul into a style that is very much their own.

Taking the best from North American blues and soul, melding it with the mellower reggae sound and layering late 1960s Jamaican dub (a sub-genre that was a big influence on the techno dance sound of today), Big Sugar carved out a sweet musical niche unlike any other, one that's very Canadian in a sense.

That evolution continues on the group's ninth studio album, "Yardstyle," with its heavy focus on slow-paced, percussion-heavy acoustic reggae.

Also performing Saturday night is longtime blues rockers Wide Mouth Mason, which formed in 1996 and often served the opening act slot for Big Sugar. The lines are little more blurred now, with Johnson taking up a kind of permanent residence providing the low end.

"They lost their bass player four years ago and were looking for a replacement," Johnson said. "I joined a as temporary replacement and have stayed on ever since."

SummerFest runs Aug. 21-24 in Bell Park. Main stage performances will be in the Grace Hartman Amphitheatre with secondary stages set up throughout the park.

Aug. 21 opens with a country music night, featuring performers Gord Bamford and Brett Kissell, with Sudbury's own Mike Trudell.

Friday night features classic Canadian rock when Loverboy hits the stage, along with Prism.

Come Aug. 23, Wide Mouth Mason and Danko Jones warm up the crowd for Big Sugar.

And finally, Summerfest closes out this year’s festival on Sunday night with Kristina Maria and Down With Webster.

SummerFest tickets start at $19.92 plus fees and taxes. Tickets and show times are available online at Sudbury Theatre Center.

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