Recordings of November 1995: 500 Pounds & Ride Like Hell

BIG SUGAR: 500 Pounds
Silvertone 42160-2 (CD). Geordie Johnson, prod.; Peter Prilesnik, prod., eng. TT: 47:42
BIG SUGAR: Ride Like Hell EP
Silvertone 42287-2 (CD). Geordie Johnson, Peter Prilesnik, Dan Gallagher, prods.; Alfie Annabelini, T. Murray, M. Peters, engs. TT: 20:50

Talking about Big Sugar's 500 Pounds, Richard Lehnert and I kept asking ourselves, "Why do we like this disc so much?" After all, this Canadian band basically serves up the same "blooze rock" that late '60s bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, and the like introduced over 30 years ago. Been there, done that, got the bumper sticker. So why do we dig it like crazy?

Well, for starters, these boys aren't really "retro." They may take the same road as those earlier bands, but they end up in a slightly different place. Bassist Gary Lowe is a gray-bearded rasta-man. Guitarist Johnson is into Hugo Boss threads. It's the '90s—Punk has come and gone and come again. All these things inform the music, rendering it palpably different from the '60s version. Still, like Clapton, Page, and Beck, Geordie Johnson starts with a solid command of his instrument and a high regard for the roots masters. On 500 Pounds his flashy fretwork and fierce vocals are placed in the service of mostly cover tunes. Traditional field hollers like "Wild Ox Moan" stand beside tunes by Al Green and Muddy Waters. He even includes (on both CD and EP) a cover of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" as a further indication of from whence he comes.

But what finally rescues Big Sugar from RetroLand is that, just like their British forebears, they use this material as a jumping-off point, not a finishing line. The key to this lies on the EP, which contains the Al Green obscurity "I'm A Ram," along with not one, but two Reggae dub versions of the same tune. The band may begin with classic R&B, but brings its own experience to the party.

Then there's the sound: not live, but fantasy-live. I've heard bands like this live—in nine out of ten rooms, it sounds like dogshit. But here, both EP and CD sound like real instruments played together in a room you can only dream of someday entering. For the most part the soundstage is natural, save for the occasional dub-influenced echoed guitar spread.

The bass is that obese reggae thump, the drums drive the mike and board to the edge of distortion for that all-important trashcan attitude, and the guitars are aggressive and present in a way much more difficult to achieve than you'd imagine.

The art of this type of recording is in its apparent artlessness, disguising a well-thought-out, carefully crafted product as a rockin' rave-up.

I guess that's why we like it.—Michael Ross

[Sigh] I suspect we'll catch some flak here, because 500 Pounds ain't pretty. It doesn't have dulcet overtones, crystal limpidity, or a perfect scale-model of the performance space down to the cracked plaster on the ceiling. What it's got is raw power—it sounds more like a live, swaggering, heavily amplified mondo-blues band than any other record I've heard in years.

Michael's right—you'd never hear the purity of the bass impact off of Wynston's drums and the sheer megawatt sustain of Johnson's guitar live—not in an arena, anyway. But anybody who's put in the time in practice rooms, or up-front in blues bars, will recognize this as the real thing—up close and personal. So yeah, I agree wholeheartedly: this is a killer disc, filled with monster chops and recorded with rare verisimilitude. Not for the faint of heart, but a treat if you're ready to crank it up and boogie.—Wes Phillips