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Big Sugar to play celebrated 1993 album in full this weekend

Big Sugar would go on to have bigger records and hotter singles during their career, but Five Hundred Pounds remains the band’s most beloved artistic endeavour.
Gordie Johnson, left, and Big Sugar play Wicket Hall on Sunday, April 21. SUBMITTED


Where: Wicket Hall, 919 Douglas St.

When: Sunday, April 21, 8 p.m. (doors at 7)

Tickets: $48.72 from

If more than half of the songs on Five Hundred Pounds originate from outside sources — including songwriters Al Green, Steve Winwood, and Muddy Waters — why exactly is the 1993 recording considered the definitive artistic statement from Big Sugar?

The extra-large efforts of Gordie Johnson.

The singer, guitarist, and Big Sugar bandleader was the main motivator behind the recording, and justly received the lion’s share of the credit when the hit Ride Like Hell broke the Toronto band nationwide. Not only did he play bass guitar, electric guitar and sing on the album, he wrote, co-wrote, or arranged all 11 songs on the album. What’s more, he also produced, mastered, engineered and mixed parts of Five Hundred Pounds, which Jack White of the White Stripes recently re-released through his record label, Third Man Records.

“It turns out Jack White was a Big Sugar fan in his early days, and still remains one,” Johnson said during an interview with the Times Colonist. “He insisted on reissuing the record on vinyl, and put together this special package. He’s the one guy who is responsible for making it happen. It was definitely a pinch me moment. Every aspect of it, it was really an honour to be in that company.”

Big Sugar would go on to have bigger records and hotter singles during their career, but Five Hundred Pounds remains the band’s most beloved artistic endeavour, a jazz-blues-reggae pastiche that landed Johnson and Co. a best new group nomination at the Juno Awards in 1995.

“The big one in terms of Big Sugar being known in the mainstream was Hemi-Vision,” Johnson said of Big Sugar’s 1996 full-length. “But the thing about Five Hundred Pounds is that it remains the one record that has gotten me more introductions to more people all over the world.”

Johnson said the forward momentum of the album led to some high-placed collaborations over the years, including ones with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s backing band, Double Trouble, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top, The Black Crowes, and Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers. “Every [artist] I’ve ever encountered has said, ‘Oh, you’re the Ride Like Hell guy. I love Five Hundred Pounds!’ That’s the record that has become my calling card.”

Big Sugar has a deep catalogue by this point, so deep cuts from Five Hundred Pounds rarely make it into the band’s concert setlists. In fact, some of the tracks were never played live when the record was released. Johnson said he’s eager to make up for lost time.

On its current tour, which stops Sunday at Wicket Hall in Victoria, Tuesday at The Queen’s in Nanaimo, and Wednesday at The Waverley Hotel in Cumberland, the power trio is playing two sets each night, one of which features Five Hundred Pounds in its entirety.

This isn’t the first time Johnson and Big Sugar have celebrated a classic from their catalogue with a run of anniversary dates. Heated, the band’s fourth album, released in 1998, was fêted with a 25th anniversary tour in 2023. There wasn’t further anniversary plans, but White’s enthusiasm for Five Hundred Pounds — which he called “the best blues-based record ever to come out of Canada” in a video he posted to Instagram — eventually spilled over to Johnson, the lone original member in the group.

“We weren’t thinking about doing [an anniversary tour] with Five Hundred Pounds until Jack’s efforts became contagious.”

Longtime fans will notice some slight differences in the delivery, after more than 30 years, Johnson added.

“I wasn’t even 30 when that record came out, so I’m a different player [now]. I have several decades of life on these fingertips and this throat,” he said. A noted car enthusiast — that’s his 1970 Dodge Charger in the video for Ride Like Hell — he uses an auto analogy to explain the difference between Big Sugar in 1993 and Big Sugar in 2024.

“It’s like the difference between a new car and a vintage one. Vintage cars might break down from time to time, but nothing looks more stylish going down the road.”

Johnson, 59, is joined in the group by bassist Anders Drerup and drummer Root Valac, the latter of whom wasn’t born when Five Hundred Pounds arrived in stores. As a result, the trio didn’t spend any time listening to the record or learning songs note-for-note. “The way we play the songs is the way they are today,” Johnson said.

The bandleader will use guitars specific to individual songs during the upcoming tour dates. One piece of rare equipment he decided to bring out on the road is his 1969 Gibson ES335, which gives Ride Like Hell its raw, echo-laden sound. He won’t fly with it, however, so the Texas-based Johnson and his wife are driving through Canada in order to ensure its safety.

He knows better at this point than to trust anyone other than himself when it comes to the guitar.

“I don’t let it out of my sight. We’re not flying anywhere on this tour, because I refuse to fly with it. It has a deep sentimental value for me. I wrote a lot of material on that guitar, and played it until it was unplayable. I had to have it restored, because it has as many bumps and scratches on it as I do.”

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