REVIEW: Big Sugar almost too cool for its own good

It may be possible to read too much into what was really a pretty decent rock show, but the members of the Big Sugar Collective on stage at the Edmonton Event Centre on Thursday night were trying too hard to be too cool for their own good.

This is disturbing. They didn’t need to prove their hipness before. Back in the day – that day being between 1991 to 2004 – Big Sugar’s sexy, pumped-up hybrid of rock, blues and reggae was cool on its own, epitomized by such classic Canadiana as If I Had My Way, I’m a Ram and the particularly Alberta-flavoured All Hell for a Basement. Any hint of pretension was banished with the sheer ferocious mojo of the performances. It’s different now. There’s a nagging pang that something, something important, but you can’t put your finger on it, is amiss. Maybe it’s too many cooks in the kitchen – all of them cooking up a storm.

So what happened in the “hiatus” since 2004? Well, the record business fell apart. In fact, it’s harder to make any money as a creative artist these days because all intellectual property is supposedly free for the taking over the Internet. In response, musicians have hit the road more than ever, because you can’t download the live concert experience – but even touring is a hustle for every buck you get, every ticket you sell. Competition is intense, and shows tank all the time. So from the average professional band’s point of view, it’s all become about the “merch.” Just about every entertainer that comes through town plugs their merch relentlessly on stage, much more than in the old days when they knew record sales could sustain them – and yet it’s still all about the damned new album, and everybody has a new album, and none of them mean anything anymore because it’s all about songs, about “singles” once again, that you can hear for free on the Internet.

In short, there’s a hint of desperation in the air.

Now that Big Sugar is back, the band of course played many of its greatest hits at Thursday’s show, along with generous portions of the new record Revolutions Per Minute. This is Big Sugar 2.0, a mad mutant reinvention of the old band. Its ranks have swelled to include a female back-up singer, the two members of opening act Wide Mouth Mason – for which Big Sugar frontman Gordie Johnson also plays bass – and a keyboard player who goes by the name of “DJ Friendlyness.” Well versed in the art of dancehall-style rapping, this guy sports a formidable mane of white guy dreadlocks, while the hippie-haired Johnson now looks like Willie Nelson’s nephew on a long vacation in Jamaica. Wide Mouth’s Shaun Verreault, meanwhile, wins the worst hair award with what appears to be a blond hair helmet grafted to his skull for a general Annie Lennox Astroboy sort of look. And where outrageous hair was lacking, other members of the band sported everything from cool blues hats to cool skull caps to cool toques, to keep your head warm in a sweaty nightclub.

No, this is not a fashion police report. It’s a rock concert review – but Jesus, what a distraction. More disturbing is the idea that this Big Sugary riot of tonsorial and sartorial blunders may be a symptom of deeper issues. When you’re trying so hard to look cool, it has to have an effect on your performances. In the opening set, for example, Verreault was particularly self-indulgent in showing off his double threat gifts – powerful vocals and incendiary guitar playing. There was no humility, no subtlety. It was more “look at me!” and “hear me wail!” and “dig my guitar solos!” than deploying all of the above to the service of his music. It was bombastic. If he’s not careful, Wide Mouth Mason could jump the shark, if it hasn’t already.

Despite the odd misfire, Big Sugar was a lot better. The cranked it up with a little Mr. Friendly number off the top, the singsong rapping an interesting counterpoint to the blues harp, reggae bass and Gordie’s trademark motorheaded guitar sound. Mr. Friendlyness sure seems to love what he does, you could feel the joy, and that counts for a lot. The double neck guitar came out for Digging a Hole, flying through an extended version of Sugar in My Coffee, into If I Had May Way and onto various sonic adventures both more and less interesting. The Big Big Sugar Band has not quite found its true sound potential – lots of things going on here, including Verreault being allowed to show off – but you can hear it coalescing.

Of the new material, Counterfeit Wings (Are Some Jive-Ass Wings) stood out. Some of the rest, not so much. An unexpected highlight came later in – you never guessed it – a Christmas song. The lyrics go something like “If Santa don’t bring you no funk, I’ll bring some funk to you.” The song was so cool it was frozen.

Gordie wasted no time plugging the new album, pausing early on to lambast the Bear for being the “only station in Canada not playing new Big Sugar.” It was basically the first thing he said to the crowd, and it left a sour taste. He’d said in an advance phone interview that he doesn’t care what people think, and I think he’s lying.

But like I said, this was a pretty decent rock show from a pretty decent rock band that actually takes some chances, and not just with fashion. The music is a cut above the usual Nickelbackian, Hedleyroonian dreck. Big Sugar has a deep catalogue of great songs. They have all the right tools to become a great band. All they have to do is stop trying so hard.