Gordie Johnson and Kelly Hoppe join the other members of Big Sugar as the headliners of the A&W Funtastic Music Festival at Vernon's DND Army Camp grounds

Gordie Johnson and Kelly Hoppe join the other members of Big Sugar as the headliners of the A&W Funtastic Music Festival at Vernon's DND Army Camp grounds

Big Sugar puts the years in front of them

The lights are still on for Canada’s blues-rock-reggae legends, who headline the Funtastic Music Festival in Vernon July 2.

For seminal Canadian blues-rock-reggae band Big Sugar, the start of a new year has meant big change.

After all, it was after New Year’s Day, 2002 that the band would go on a long hiatus when Big Sugar frontman/guitarist Gordie Johnson moved to Texas.

And it was on New Year’s Eve seven years ago that the band was convinced to give it another go.

That’s a good thing for ball players and music revellers who will be grooving to Big Sugar as the headliners of Vernon’s A&W Funtastic Music Festival Saturday, July 2.

“The reason for stopping the band wasn’t personal. We always had a strong music and personal relationship, but the music industry then was rapidly changing,” said Big Sugar’s Kelly “Mr. Chill” Hoppe, known for his wailing blues harp on such singles as Diggin’ a Hole and Nicotina (She’s All That).

“Gordie told us a year before that New Year’s that he was moving to Texas. He never said we wouldn’t get back together, or thought this would be it, but he never had a date in mind.”

While Johnson and Hoppe, who had met in Windsor years before, and other members of Big Sugar carried on with other projects, it was actually Antigonish, N.S. band The Trews who lit the fire for Big Sugar to reunite.

“Gordie and I did a New Year’s Eve gig with The Trews in Alberta in 2009, and the thought was that people would like to see (us) back together again. They knew a dozen Big Sugar songs, and not just Diggin’ a Hole.”

That fueled the band’s members to get back together in 2010 and they started playing festivals that summer.

“It was like putting a nice pair of shoes on that had been in the closet for years. Everyone was available and we wanted to make more new music,” said Hoppe.

That new music has included latest album Calling All Youth, which gets back to the double-neck guitar driven rock-blues sound that made Big Sugar famous in the 1990s.

Calling all Youth feels like Big Sugar for me,” said Hoppe. “If you want to analyze it, it has the soul, R&B of (1998 album) Heated, and also has 2011’s Revolution per Minute’s reggae style. It also has the roots of Jamaica, the acoustic sound (as heard on 2014’s Yard Style) and 2001’s Brothers and Sisters, Are you Ready? in that it is the same guy singing and playing guitar.”

“It’s like the wine has aged more. It’s not vinegary… We are also always looking for something new.”

Hoppe attributes all these styles to Big Sugar’s musical influences and history, starting with the rockabilly-jazz band he and Johnson played in way back when in Windsor.

Although known for his trademark double-neck Gibson, which he attributes to Rush’s Alex Lifeson, Johnson was the bass player in that first band and has since gone on to join the rhythm section of Wide Mouth Mason and form his own projects, such as southern rock band Grady and more recently, Sit Down, Servant!

“He also plays the banjo and lap-steel,” said Hoppe. “He has worked out of Willie Nelson’s studio since he moved down to Texas.”

Then there is bass player Garry Lowe, keyboardist DJ Friendlyness, and occasional member, dub master Willi Williams, who bring their considerable reggae backgrounds to Big Sugar.

“I refer to those guys for old school reggae and I guess they refer to me for old soul and R&B. That’s what I have a passion for, and also country. I once played on The Tommy Hunter Show,” said Hoppe.

Drummer Stephane “Bodean” Beaudin rounds out the rhythm section.

Now that Big Sugar has rekindled the fire, the plan is to keep on going.

Besides the four albums it has put out since reuniting, Big Sugar has been touring just about everywhere, more recently with Triggerfinger, Belgium’s answer to The Tragically Hip, across Europe and Canada.

“We still have an audience and we still love to play live. Playing live is what we are known for. Even if it is for just three people, it doesn’t really matter, you feel like it’s your reason for existence especially after all these years,” said Hoppe. “We feel joy playing for each other and to give and share with someone else. And if there’s reason to do it, then you’ll say ‘give me my plane ticket.’”

Big Sugar shares that love when it headlines the A&W Funtastic Music Festival at the DND Army Camp grounds, Saturday, July 2 at 10:45 p.m.

Opening acts include  It Doesn’t Really Matter rockers Platinum Blonde, as well as Vernon’s The Dirt and the Shawn Lightfoot Band.

A variety of bands will also play on the Thursday and Friday nights.

For a full schedule, and tickets, visit funtasticsports.ca.