Gordie Johnson returns to roots

-- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 5:05 AM ET

It's great to see Bluesfest back at Lebreton Flats. But it somehow seemed less disrespectful trouncing through City Hall to get to a rock show. The Canadian War Museum? Well, at least you feel like removing your hat as you enter.

At the outset of last night's five-stage extravaganza, our own Mighty Popo acknowledged the world's many war zones during a typically spirited set on the Blacksheep Stage.

"Let them hear us," the Burundi-born guitarist shouted as he urged the crowd to raise their voices. It was a moving moment during a set that had already seen much movement -- both onstage and off.

Fellow local guitar slinger Trevor Finlay, meanwhile, was warming things up in the Main Stage area, as part of Paul Deslauriers' Guitar Explosion. A brief, bluesy set served, like Popo's remarks, to remind the crowd of what we have lost -- this time, in the quest for an ever-bigger festival.

Ah, but the blues remain very much at the heart of Gordie Johnson's music. Amped-up electric blues, served with a decidedly cowpunk flavour. But blues nonetheless.

In that sense, Grady -- who hit town on the heels of a recently released sophomore album, A Cup of Cold Poison -- can be seen as a return to Johnson's gritty roots. By the time of Big Sugar's final days, the loud-and-proud band was edging ever closer to becoming something of a dub-reggae outfit.

And, well, let's just say promoters and live-music venues 'round these parts don't much care for reggae musicians, or their followers. (Hence, Buju Banton, one of the greatest acts to hit town this month, was relegated to playing the Nepean Sportsplex this week.)

Grady bassist Big Ben Richardson lays down the bottom end well enough to satisfy Johnson's dubbish tendencies. But when the pair left their home and native land for Austin, Tex., nearly four years ago, it was to rediscover the sort of blues, country and rock roots that initially spawned Big Sugar.

They did so by recruiting Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton (since replaced by Texan Billy Maddox), turning up countrified originals to heavy metal levels and blending in with the locals well enough to have recruited Willie Nelson and Alejandro Escovedo to assist with A Cup of Cold Poison, an album recorded at Nelson's ranch.

"Trying to find common ground between punk, metal and gospel," is how Johnson has described the hellbent music of Grady. And it's probably fair to say a few of the gathering Steve Miller Band fans had the fear of God blasted into them during Grady's bombastic tribute to the devil's music.

On the other hand, if those Miller fans were also ZZ Top fans -- and let's face it, many were -- they were in heaven. Or as close as an evening of sentiments like "She may be black/She may be white/It really doesn't matter in the middle of the night" can put them.

Which, granted, is not particularly close.

Clad in western garb, with the Canadians in the band sporting cowboy hats (the Texan's hat was, presumably, implied), Grady pumped up the volume for a set that highlighted the bulk of Cold Poison's barebones material -- songs that play as well in the Great White North as they surely do in Austin.

Even to a swelling Steve Miller crowd.


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