The Danforth Music hall was absolutely packed on February 7th, as fans waited to see Big Sugar. It was fantastic to see the famous Toronto-based musicians play in their- and my- hometown, although the performance caught me completely off guard.
When I saw the stage I knew something far outside my expectations of the band was happening that night. The most obvious tip was the drum kit, or lack thereof. Instead, lining the front of the stage were an assortment of conga drums. Considering the instruments I was expecting to see on stage, for example the double-necked Gibson often seen in the hands of front man Gordie Johnston, the congas were a bit of a shock. Then the band, or, more accurately, Big Sugar and friends came on stage. Sixteen people walked out, each dressed in white, loose hanging clothing, amongst whom were The Trews members Colin and John-Angus Macdonald. Johnson sat in the centre, a white bandana tied across his forehead, beginning the set by plucking the strings of his guitar on its back. I listened intrigued and confused, and not having a clue what was about to happen. And now for something completely different!
It was said that everyone on stage that night were long time friends of one another. They described themselves as the Big Sugar family. The front man informed us that what we were seeing was “Big Sugar in its natural habitat”. This, he said, was what Big Sugar would look like if you snuck up on them the wild, but without all the white. The band played an acoustic set. The heavy rhythmic percussion set the tone for the sound. Everything sonically was in perfect balance and harmony, falling into place beautifully with each drum beat. It was easy to be hypnotized by the visual element of the performance. With so many hands playing so many different instruments, it left me gazing contentedly at all the perfectly timed movements. Trying to hear all the nuances and how they collectively tied the sound together, along with watching the spectacle put me into zen-like state. The chorus of vocals emanating from the various singers was strong but not overpowering. Big Sugar definitely did not have nearly as much of a rock n’ roll influence that night as many fans are used to from their earlier career. Instead on Saturday, reggae took the wheel with some blues, folk, and bluegrass influences detectable in the background.
“Did you ever think you’d hear a flute solo at a Big Sugar concert?” Johnson asked the crowd. And no, honestly, I never thought I would. But I’m glad I did. There were also solos from the saxophones and the harmonica. The whole night it felt like the crowd should have been sitting on the floor, cross-legged in a circle, and with the air heavy with fumes other than incense (which was burning on stage). Chairs just didn’t seem right, especially since Bob Marley’s birthday had taken place the day before, which the band of course gave mention to. The songs had a strong, positive, and peaceful message to get across. Their lyrics delved into subjects like war, poverty and power abusing police. Big Sugar, in fact, has adopted a village in Ethiopia by the name of Jarso, in the true reggae activist fashion.. The meaning in the music weighed heavy but the mood was light and energetic.
The diverse crowd stood when Big Sugar played “Turn the Lights On”, the first Big Sugar hit to be played that night. They didn’t sit down again. The whole band had an amazing energy. They seemed like they really wanted the audience to be a part of what they were doing, and that they wanted us to feel as relaxed and positive as they felt. Johnson mentioned he had never seen a Toronto audience get so rowdy in his life. By the end of the show, most of the crowd had moved towards the stage, yelling so much I wouldn’t be surprised if most people who were there lost their voice the next day, myself included. Unlike Johnson, I’m not surprised we showed them so much love. These renowned Canadian musicians deserve it.
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Review by Thea McKay | Photos by Dawn Hamilton (@MinisMemories)