Performing at the Ponoka Stampede carries a certain allure for “city slicker” musician Kelly Hoppe of Big Sugar.
“Rodeo is part of Western Canadian culture and I find it interesting, the same way I would find lobster fishing to be an interesting cultural experience in Newfoundland,” said the saxophonist, also known as Mr. Chill, who’s from Windsor, Ont.
Hoppe’s not sure how many rodeo events he’ll be able to watch around Big Sugar’s concert with 54-40 on June 25, at the Stampede.
But he looks forward to another chance to play for Albertans.
“All audiences are great, but sometimes you can feel a little extra,” he said, and that’s always the case with crowds in this province. “We love to play anywhere, but Alberta has a special place in the heart of our music.”
Big Sugar’s frontman Gordie Johnson has family in the Red Deer area. But Hoppe feels the band made an Alberta connection even while Johnston was still living in Toronto in the late 1990s. “We still had a great fans base out there,” and he believes it has to do with this being the point where east meets west.
“It’s the diaspora, all these (East Coast) fishermen — and women — now working in the oilpatch …”
Big Sugar will play some rock-reggae songs from the new album Calling All Youth at the show, as well as older hits. These could include Turn the Lights On, Diggin’ A Hole, If I Had My Way, and the song written about the “diaspora,” All Hell for a Basement.
Alberta’s economy isn’t what it once was.
And Hoppe understands what a slump feels like, hailing from a place that’s suffered from auto-plant closures in Windsor and neighbouring Detroit.
While Windsor has struggled economically, the southern Ontario city always been home to Hoppe, who refused to move to Toronto, even when the rest of the band was based there. “It’s where I was born and raised,” where his wife works and where they own a house.
It’s also where Hoppe soaked up his musical influences.
Windsor gets all of Detroit’s radio stations, making it a mecca for Motown, blues and hip-hop music, said Hoppe. Detroit also has world-class rock venues, said Hoppe, who noted KISS partially recorded its Alive! album there.
“The border is blurred” between the two cities, with people intermarrying between Canada and the U.S., and heavy-weight American musicians crossing the river to play in the Canadian city, said Hoppe.
Johnson once lived in Windsor, where he was hired by Hoppe to play guitar at a gig. Johnson later returned the favour, asking Hoppe to join Big Sugar in 1994.
The harmonica and sax player, who became known as Mr. Chill after breaking his coffee-binging habit, brings an R&B flavour to the band.
Hoppe believes all five musicians deliver different influences to the group that mixes blues, reggae, rock, soul and funk into a unique Big Sugar blend.
Tickets to the 7 p.m. show with 54-40 are $40 ($20 children) from Ticketmaster.