WHO NAMED THE BAND: Big Sugar returns, sweet as ever

You usually don’t get to pick your own nickname – so you better hope it’s a cool one because you’re going to be stuck with it until you die, or at least kill the people who gave you the nickname.

Being stamped with a name against your will can even happen to a rock band, from time to time, when the originally chosen name has to be changed. It happened to Big Sugar, which returns to Edmonton after a long hiatus, playing a “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” style show with Wide Mouth Mason at the Edmonton Event Centre on Thursday.

Big Sugar did not name Big Sugar. The band actually started life back in the late ‘80s as the Mean Red Spiders. As singer Gordie Johnson recalls, it was a name chosen after months of careful discussion, and found on a Muddy Waters record. “We loved that name,” he says. They put up posters all over Toronto, played their first gig and were promptly served a “cease and desist” order by lawyers representing a band that had already taken the name Mean Red Spiders. What are the odds?

“They were from Hamilton or something,” Johnson says. “Of course no one’s ever heard of them since. But whatever. So there we were, with glum faces, sitting at the Pilot Tavern in Toronto, faces down in our beer: Oh, man, now what do we do?! It was such a nice poster.”

Enter one Harry Doupe, a stand-up comic buddy of theirs, who joined them at the bar and – being quite hungover – ordered coffee. He goes to sweeten his coffee, rips open the packet – which unbeknownst to Doupe had apparently gotten wet a few days prior – and an entire lump of solidified sugar plops into his cup, spilling coffee on his tie.

Harry said: “Huh, Big Sugar – there you go, that’s you guys.”

Gordie’s reaction was instant: “You have named the band Big Sugar! Thank you very much. I don’t want to hear any more. We’re Big Sugar. Everybody else just shrugged and said, yeah, sure.”

And so a legend was born. Well, not quite a legend, not yet, anyway, but one fine rockin’ blues n’ reggae band that cut quite a large swath through the Canadian music scene back in the day with songs like Sugar in My Coffee, which Johnson claims he’d been working on long before the Big Sugar name came along. Coincidence, you say? Johnson wandered off for a while there, landing near Austin, Texas as some kind of cosmic cowboy in a band called Grady. Then, when bassist Earl Pereira left Wide Mouth Mason, Johnson became their bassist. Yes, he’ll be opening for himself at the gig.

Johnson would like fans to know that this isn’t your usual reunion tour where the band just gets together to phone in the old hits and make a pile of money. No, they reunited to make a new record, Revolutions Per Minute, “to be a new band again and go out on the road and prove it all over again.”

The singer’s ongoing sojourn where he lives in Dripping Springs, Texas – a short drive from Willie Nelson’s studio, where Johnson has done most of his recent work – has given him a more “rural” attitude about the band, about music, about life in general. Willie is “the original redneck country rebel,” Johnson says. “You do what you’re going to do and let people catch up to you. I thought: man, that didn’t hurt old Willie none. I’m going to try that.”

After Harry dubbed the band, it only occurred later to the musicians that this was in fact a pretty cool name. Big Sugar is of course the nickname for the sugar cane industry in the Caribbean, whose culture and music have always been a big part of the band’s sound. No one else out there was combining reggae with blues with rock quite the way these guys were.

As for Mean Red Spiders, “I think I would’ve got sick of that by now,” Johnson says.

Big Sugar fits the band perfectly – just like any good nickname.