Turn That Music Down!

Jeremy pinged me a few weeks back: Big Sugar is coming, did I want to go?

Given our previous two concerts this year alone, I was in. But more important, this is Big Sugar, which was a notable part of my late-1990s life. Memories of working in downtown Toronto with Gerry, my move to Vancouver, and my early years here in Calgary.

I mean, yeah, of course! And this time, we dragged Duane along for the ride.

Duane and I started a bit early – we were behind in getting together – for a couple of beers before we met Jeremy at the Palomino for BBQ. The doors opened at 19:30 at the Palace, so it gave us lots of time for food and conversation.

The line had already formed by the time we arrived at about 19:45, which was when we found out that the band was running an hour late. Which, no big deal, we could wait.

I don’t think I’ve been in The Palace since late 2007, the second time Critical Mass used what was then Flames Central for a company event. (At least, I can’t find any other pictures in the library to confirm it.) Flames Central had a lot of interior decor that was stripped out when the Flames pulled their license, and it shows with what’s left. It’s not a bad venue, but the ceiling needs attention.

Once in, we found our way to the front of the floor, almost centre stage, and waited. Duane found out that a 330 mL beer was $10, which made us all glad we’d had drinks at Palomino.

And we waited. And watched the stage techs assembling things. Jeremy commented almost immediately that the drummer, when they finally showed up, would adjust everything. There was clearly no sound check earlier in the day, which made me wonder what it was going to sound like.

The concert finally started about an hour late, as predicted, as Gordie Johnston, Garry Lowe (son of Big Sugar’s original bassist, Garry), and drummer Root Valach took stage. Jeremy laughed as he saw Valach dutifully adjust everything.

Big Sugar at The Palace

Gordie adjusted nearly all night. Gordie plays multiple guitars, but they’re only a part of his rather extensive setup of pedals and a Moog board. It’s Gordie that makes the sound work, so one should probably expect that he would have considerable control.

They were dressed in what I can only assume was the clothes they had arrived in. As was later explained, they had driven in from Saskatoon (that’s a 9 hour driving in good weather, for the record), so I’m guessing they were in their road clothes. It was a bit of a disappointment, as Gordie was (back in the late 90s) literally the best-dressed Canadian musician (all Hugo Boss). He looked decided less fancy. But he wasn’t there to look pretty, he was there to play. As the second song said: Better Get Used To It.

Jeremy had made one comment over dinner, that Big Sugar was one of the loudest bands he had ever experienced. And I can safely say they held to that. Being next to the stage, we had the speakers above and the ones on stage assaulting our eardrums. Sadly, due to a lack of soundcheck, the tuning was off and the first set was plagued with feedback.

Oh, yes, there were two sets. The first was the Heated album – this is the 25th anniversary of it, the point of the tour. The second half, about 45 minutes later, was a grab bag of hits from across their catalogue, but sticking to mostly hits.

Big Sugar at The Palace

Turn the Lights On, Hammer In My Hand, 100 Cigarettes, and Let It Ride, were met with Dear Mr. Fantasy, Red Rover, Roads Ahead, and Ride Like Hell.

But nothing got as much attention as All Hell For A Basement, a song Gordie wrote while living in Medicine Hat, where there’s a quote from Rudyard Kipling:

This part of the country seems to have All Hell for a basement, and the only trap door appears to be in Medicine Hat.

The audience knew the song, cold. (I mean, if you live in Alberta and attend a Big Sugar concert, you should know…) Combined, they overpowered the band, which is no small feat.

It was during Diggin’ A Hole I had a bit of an epiphany. There’s a line repeated twice in the song:

I’m feelin’ twice my age

It hit me: I am twice the age I was when I started listening to Big Sugar (Hemi-Vision, the album the song appears on, is 26 years old, but who’s counting). But I don’t know if I feel twice as old as I did at 25.

Welllll… except for one thing. And I dunno if it was the band, the sound, or some combination of all three. Towards the middle of the second set, something started triggering a stabbing pain in my head. It got so bad that I had to listen to the last song (Ride Like Hell, one of my favs) from the back where it was only moderately better. But I was outside before the encore finished. I don’t know if that’s age, or just poor sound design.

Either way, my ears are ringing something fierce. I might even be partially deaf on my left side.

As much as I love live music, I think the next time, I’m bringing ear plugs.