Most of the time, he’s travelled with bassist Garry Lowe. The two have shared a lot of times together, both good and bad, but now Johnson is back on the road and Garry hasn’t joined him.
Lowe died this month after a two year battle with cancer.
Johnson and Big Sugar are headed into Ottawa for a show. He said, in a phone interview from Central Alberta that he’s travelling with a heavy heart.
“Garry would not have wanted us to stop. We did make preparations for this but it is certainly not how we wanted it to end up.”
The band is currently travelling with bass player “Big” Ben Richardson, someone who worked with Johnson in another musical project called Grady.
This Big Sugar tour feels “appropriate and it feels like a tribute” to Lowe, he said, who will be there on stage every night, he added.
“We will be playing Gary’s bass lines every night. He will be on stage with us every night. You just won’t be able to see him.”
That certainly will be the case in the band’s show as part of Rebelfest on Saturday night at 9 p.m. at Lansdowne Park.
The death of Lowe has Johnson thinking back on the history of his band.
“There are a flood of memories that come back. A lot of funny things and a lot of serious stuff but like I said … so much of our connection was unspoken. We didn’t work things through musically. If I played a little something, he would play a little something back. It was a very symbiotic relationship.
“Really Garry just played the music Garry’s way which is all I really wanted him to do. I never wanted him to change what he was playing.”
Big Sugar has always been characterized as rock and reggae band. Johnson doesn’t dispute that but “we never sat down to infuse our misic with reggae that’s just what we were doing. The way we expressed ourselves, our influences came out, influences like soul, blues rock and roll.”
The band has been working on a new album that has been delayed by Lowe’s death, Johnson said.
“Our new record isn’t finished. Losing Garry has put a bit of a delay on things but I do have a great wealth of material recorded with Garry in our studio. I’m just going to need to get myself in a place emotionally where I can sit down and assess all of that and get it finished.
“We are out playing some of the new music this summer again in memory of Gary and we just want to share it.”
You can bet that it won’t reflect “current trends” in pop music, he said. “Current trends? That’s like swear words on the radio. You should see what I look at every day man, old Toots and the Maytals records. I don’t really care” what other people are doing, he said.
“We’ve been doing it for 25 years of it so I think this could work out. It’s not like we are trying to hit a target. We provide people with sounds we have been making for a long time. Of course it continues to grow and evolve and be a living, breathing thing. But if you want your Big Sugar, this is the only place where you can come and get it.
“We don’t try and sound like The Killers or anybody for that matter.”
That identity, he said, has served Big Sugar well. But when you lose an important person you have two choices, Johnson said.
“It’s stop or go forward … those are the only options, so we are going to go forward and I don’t know what form that might take immediately but I remain open-hearted and open minded to the possibilities that we will do something wonderful, unique and something that only we can do.”
Rebelfest, sponsored by radio station Rebel 101.7, is a small weekend festival happening in the wake of the much larger RBC Ottawa Bluesfest.
As far as Johnson is concerned he thinks people have an “appetite for a smaller festival get-together. The giant mega festivals are a lot of fun, but for an audience to see two bands you really like, that’s still valid. I’m glad to see some diversity.”
In the end, he’s pretty pragmatic about it all.
“I’ll go where they send me. I show up and do the music. We don’t scale the show up or down. If we have left the house to come and play we’ll play it like it’s our last show.” Because you never know what’s going to happen, he said.
“I remember Gary’s last show. As a group we have been around long enough that guys have passed away. It does put a sense of ‘let’s just make this the best it can be because you don’t know what’s next. We really seize the day whenever we leave the house to go play.
Garry’s final show was in November. We did two nights in Ontario in Kitchener and Toronto with Alex Lifeson of Rush. What a great show it was. Garry’s teenage son was up on stage with us singing with his dad. Having the next generation on stage with us was really momentous. Of course, we didn’t know at the time that it would be Garry’s last.”
Where: Rebelfest, Lansdowne Park Great Lawn
When: July 21 at 9 p.m.
Tickets and more information: rebel1017.com