Fans used to the big, booming Big Sugar sound are in for something richer and mellower when frontman Gordie Johnson brings his blues-rock band — plus additional “Rasta elders” — to Red Deer this month.
“No one needs to bring any ear-plugs,” said Johnson.
At the same time, don’t expect a minimalistic MTV Unplugged experience at the acoustic Big Sugar concert on Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.
A minimum of eight musicians will be on stage, playing everything from a horn to a goat-skin-covered African nyabingi drum “with some fur still on it. That’s roots music for you, right there!” said a chuckling Johnson.
He describes a percussion-heavy, acoustic reggae sound with some blues grooves. “The people on stage each night are really impressive — like an acoustic orchestra. … There’s a very spiritual feeling,” added the now Texas-based local singer/guitarist. The band will be playing some new songs, as well as re-interpretions of Big Sugar standards.
Acoustic performances aren’t new for Big Sugar — only for the band’s listeners, said Johnson. “This is how we play the songs for ourselves,” informally, on the tour bus or while jamming in the backstage lounge.
“For us, it’s a real treat to play the songs this way for an audience. We’re very comfortable doing it and sharing it with people is very gratifying.”
The 13 languidly-paced tracks on the band’s latest acoustic album Yardstyle encompass classics like Turn The Lights On and the new cuts, Calling All the Youth and Police Bway the Vampire.
The album features the talents of reggae legend Willi Williams and an extended family of “brethren,” some of which might appear live in Red Deer as supporting musicians.
Johnson, who was raised in Medicine Hat and still has family in Red Deer along with horses and cattle at an area ranch, promised a concert “like the sound of Negril (Jamaica) at night.” But the exact musical lineup will be a surprise.
The core of Big Sugar (bassist Garry Lowe, drummer Stephane “Bodean” Beaudin, horn player Kelly “Mr Chill” Hoppe and toastmaster DJ Friendlyness) will play in Red Deer, along with members of Johnson’s extended musical family. “We’ll be bringing
some Rasta elders … and people from other bands will be guesting on different nights,” said the singer.
Who the extras are will depend on availability. “They’ll try to work it into their schedules so they can play with us.”
This kind of loose approach was also taken with Yardstyle, which was recorded while the musicians basically jammed. “It wasn’t done like in a modern recording studio where first they record the drums, then the bass and guitars, and the singing last. We just played and let them record us,” said Johnson.
The way the songs came out on the album was pretty much how they were played: “That was us.”
When it came to picking songs for acoustic reinterpretation, “we just did the ones that are a lot of fun to play,” said Johnson. He believes listeners will to surprised to hear how well hard-rocking songs like Digging A Hole work with an acoustic rendering.
“They probably don’t know that song was originally worked out on a banjo.”
A 70-to-90-year-old banjo will be used during the concert because Johnson believes antique, thoroughly worn-in instruments produce a mellower “more complex and rich sound.”
Of course, there will also be the hand-stretched nyabingi drum.
“It’s the first great acoustic instrument,” Johnson has stated. “That’s the heartbeat sound, you know?”
Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert, presented by the Central Music Festival Society, are $54.60 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.