In 1994 Canadian rock group Big Sugar was just starting to hit its stride nationally when bassist Garry Lowe joined the blues, rock and reggae-tinged ensemble. Just a few years later his bass line introducing “Diggin’ A Hole” solidified the fact the band led by singer/guitarist Gordie Johnson were in it for the long haul.
However, an upcoming Aug. 31 show at the Canadian National Exhibition will be a bittersweet occasion as it’s the first Toronto area show without Lowe beside Johnson. In early July cancer claimed Lowe. He was 64.
“Garry had been sick for a while and that was supposed to be his triumphant return to the stage, unfortunately,” Johnson says, still coming to terms with the loss. “But we really use every show to honour his memory now, he was so determined to get back there that it wouldn’t seem right for us to quit.”
Johnson says he was deeply moved by the well wishes Lowe’s family and the band received.
“When I think about it Garry made a connection with so many people on so many levels,” he says. “We travelled all over the world and just what we got on Facebook was one thing. But what we got in private, the stuff that came through e-mail, it was really cool.”
The guitarist recalled meeting Lowe (who only missed one gig in two years during his diagnosis) after seeing him essentially be the bass player for nearly all Toronto reggae acts. Johnson also got a surprise last month when he was given the soundboard recording of Lowe’s first Big Sugar show.
“The sound man had it and sent it to me about two weeks ago,” Johnson says. “I was like, ‘This is Gary’s first gig with Big Sugar, what!’ It’s pretty astounding to hear.”
Musically Johnson says Lowe was always learning yet remained identical in terms of playing style.
“Garry’s greatest attribute was he never changed from the first gig to the last one,” he says. “His playing sounded exactly the same. It was just a natural thing, like dirt or water or grass or wind, it just doesn’t. It’s just so unaware of itself. He was very humble but he possessed this amazing wellspring of culture.
“The other thing with Garry was it largely was just unspoken. We didn’t talk about what we did together. There was just a meeting of minds when sound came out of our amps. It was just locked identical side-by-side thing that was happening. We couldn’t really explain it or teach it to anybody.”
A tribute concert is being tentatively planned for December with Johnson “trying to cram everybody in” after “an overwhelming response of musicians” wanting to participate.
Meanwhile, Big Sugar is in the homestretch of wrapping up a new studio album, one Johnson “has a very positive message.” Lowe’s passing obviously derailed the band’s plans but Johnson says he’ll be incorporating Lowe’s playing into the forthcoming effort.
The summer tour also saw Big Sugar’s original bassist “Big” Ben Richardson return as the band carries on.
“Ben has worked for Big Sugar as a tour manager, front of house sound engineer, he’s so intimately acquainted the Big Sugar world,” Johnson says. “In Garry’s last year Big Ben always had his bass at the gig, suit and tie ready to walk on stage if Garry faltered. So he was ready when Garry couldn’t play Big Ben was already there, already prepared and he already speaks our language.
“I wouldn’t even entertain the thought of having auditions like no one can replace Garry. We’re not looking to do that so to have another family member step in making it possible for us on an emotional level to keep going. Ben and I have our own musical connection from years of playing together.”
Besides the touring and new album, Big Sugar will have a very busy 2018 with plans for a massive reissue campaign of all their material on vinyl. As well an “Icons” album of the band’s biggest hits is in the cards and there’s talk of a box set on the horizon.
“We’re looking forward to that which I think is going to generate a bunch of renewed interest in our older catalogue,” Johnson says.
And as for previously unreleased material or bonus tracks with the reissues or box set, Johnson says that’s a work in progress but for extremely bizarre reasons.
“It’s amazing how the industry took itself for granted,” he says. “Like, ‘Wow this is just golden and it will just never end!’ There are master tapes that no one has a clue where they are, all of our photo-shoot material, nobody has a clue where they are. Original masters of videos, well they were on MuchMusic and MuchMusic doesn’t play videos of Canadian bands anymore. Nobody knows where any of that stuff is.
“It’s a complete travesty like this was Canadian culture at the time. There’s all this archival stuff from the ‘70s and the ‘80s but from the ‘90s? Good luck! There’s almost nothing there. So there’s archeology going on with people digging around.”
For now, though Big Sugar will keep on playing. It’s what Lowe would’ve wanted.
“Garry wasn’t ready to stop,” Johnson says. “Life throws stuff at you and you deal with it. You can stop or move forward, those are the two choices. What did Winston Churchill say, when going through hell the best thing to do is keep going? That’s sort of been our approach to it.”