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WESTROCK: Big Sugar on their Alberta anthem, and what’s next for the band

The Western Standard spoke with Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar.

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I was excited to interview Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar on a live Western Standard broadcast, but with tech issues, I had to stand on the sidelines and watch our Publisher Derek Fildebrandt do it for me. As a Big Sugar fanboy, he didn’t seem to mind though. C’est la vie.

There was much respect though as I viewed and could hear Derek apologizing and giving me props for setting up the interview. In fact, Derek told Gordie that during the application for the job as the Western Standard’s new music columnist, that if I could get an interview with one his favorite Canadian artists Big Sugar, I had the job.

It took me 24 hours to set it up. I got the job.

The beginning of the interview was some chit chat back and forth and Derek made it known that he was a huge Big Sugar fan and that he originally was just going to be my kind of Ed McMahaon or Paul Shaffer, but fate must have been involved and he had Gordie all to himself. “Maybe there’s some subterfuge going on” he joked.

Cover of Eternity Now (photo credit: Big Sugar)

In case you are not aware, Big Sugar was formed in Toronto in 1988 and over the years the band has released 11 studio albums with the most recent being ‘Eternity Now’, which for various reasons took two years to record. The band and Gordie have also received many Juno nominations and many of their albums have hit Gold or Platinum status. In addition to ‘Eternity Now’, the band decided to also rerelease a vinyl version of one of their best selling albums, ‘Hemi-Vision’ this past year.

Gordie was asked about his musical influences and across the board styles.

“Well music is just the language I speak and I hear funk in my heavy metal. I hear rock when I listen to reggae, and that’s what a Big Sugar show is about; there is so much complexity and it makes you move and feel good”

The interview then got a bit scary (for me} as Derek mentioned that I said that Gordie resembled Julian from the Trailer Park Boys.

“Julian” from Trailer Park Boys

“Tell Ernest I’m going to kick his ass after school” was the singer-guitarist’s reply.

From there we delved into how the impact of Gary Lowe’s passing a couple years ago after a two year battle with cancer had on the band.

“First of all, it was devastating and there was no getting over it…I mean I know his kids and Gary was unique in what he brought to the studio and our friendship was unique. Moving forward, I didn’t hire guys to sound like him; I hired guys to be themselves and that is why Big Sugar has been successful over the years.”

As I noted above, Fildebrandt is a pretty much a Big Sugar groupie. He literally talked my ear off about Gordie and his favourite Sugar song, ‘All Hell for a Basement’.

I listened to the song and although I liked the vibe and groove, the important thing I noted is that the title was attributed to the famous poet laureate Rudyard Kipling who was born in Bombay in 1865 and traveled the world and wrote and studied. In 1907, his travels landed him in Medicine Hat, Alberta. There he coined the phrase “All hell for a Basement” referring to the region’s vast reserves of natural gas beneath the soil.

Gordie confirmed that fact. “Back in the day in downtown Medicine Hat, they literally would just stick a pipe in the ground and light it and use it for a street light” No joke.

Johnson grew up between Ontario and The Hat.

Although the song is written as kind of an athem for oil and natural gas rich Alberta, Gordie says it was more of a song about displacement as Newfoundlanders in their thousands crossed the country to find work in the oilfields as the cod fishing industry dried up.

“I just thought that was an amazing cultural phoenomena that was happening in Canada and nobody was talking about it.”

Johnston said that he still can’t play the song without tearing up.

“It’s a song about displaced people.”

“I wrote it about a young fellah – a guy in his 20s – who was working in the oilfield, who had moved from Newfoundland with his family…He couldn’t have been further from home. He was trying to make a new life for himself in Fort McMurray, Alberta.”

Johnson tells the story of a time he was in a Newfoundland pub drinking – and not preforming – and a traditional Irish folk group starting playing the song.

Another time he was working with a traditional Irish-folk musician from Newfoundland who told him – in a thick Newfie accent – “Big Sugar did not write that song. That’s a traditional old Newfoundlander song.”

Fildebrandt asked him if he believes he would get more blowback – or even get ‘canceled’ for releasing such an openly pro-oil and gas worker song. Johnson’s answer was shocking.

“We got in trouble back in 2001. You know why that song was never a radio single? Because record companies based in Toronto. You get 12 guys that live in Toronto sitting around a board room table, they say ‘ you can put that out, because they’re not going to play it anywhere else…People want to sing it everywhere we go. No record company execs have ever been as wrong as, shall be nameless.”

“We took the heat for it back in the day.” Johnston said they also took hell for putting a rock version of ‘O’Canada’ on the album.

To give more context of how much of a huge Gordie-fan Derek is, I had originally asked Gordies’ assistant if he could some how play the first couple of bars to ‘All Hell For a Basement’ either during the intro or ending of the interview. I was politely turned down through an email as Gordie was doing some session work and was just going to stop long enough to take the interview. At that point, I garnered a lot of respect for him.

Funny thing is that Derek (knowing this) persisted politely and since he was the host due to my technically-challenged demise, asked Gordie the same question. I laughed as Gordie very respectfully denied him and explained the situation…again.

I could feel the crushing blow and tearing of my new employer’s heart.

Although being in lockdown for the better part of 2020, it has still been a busy year for Gordie and Sugar as ‘Hemi-Vision’ was rereleased with some hidden gems on it that they pulled out of the vault such as a Beatles cover, and also the release of ‘Eternity Now’ by “Big Sugar 3.0”. It’s 3.0 according to Gordie because the band is always evolving, and with new members it was almost like a new band in many ways.

One of the questions that I had prepared and passed along during interview was to ask who Gordie thought was a great upcoming band or underrated artist. In a very honest and politically phrased answer, he said it would be a disservice to really mention anyone because there are so many that he would be regret if he forgot to mention someone.

The longer they chatted, Mr. Johnson did confess that he had a soft spot for the Vancouver music scene, as that is where he met his wife. He also coughed up that there are some really great musicians there and one happens to be his buddy Rich Hope.

“He’s one of those dudes that still rides his skateboard to work and has this big black Les Paul and he just embodies Rock n’ Roll and at my age he is still just shredding on it, and I can’t just limit it to Richie. Jay Sparrow is another one and the list goes on and on.”

So the moral of the story is that if you get Gordie to talk long enough, he’ll eventually slip up and I’m sure Ritchie and Jay appreciate the plug.

Ernest Skinner is the WestRock columnist for the Western Standard

Join Ernest for a live-streamed interview on Friday February 5 at 7 pm MST with Joel Hoekstra of Whitesnake and the Trans Siberian Orchestra.

Ernest Skinner is the WestRock columnist for the Western Standard. He has interviewed the likes of Bryan Adams, David Ellefson, Rob Halford, Adrian Vandenberg, and members of bands such as Motley Crue, Whitesnake, Buckcherry, Tesla, Styx, Cheap Trick, Genesis, the Scorpions and dozens and dozens more. He has been published in, Rocknation Magazine, MUEN Magazine, Montreal Rocks, The Rock Source Magazine, Wawa News, and many others.

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When pacifists become fighters

Herbert Hildebrandt, son of Church of God pastor Henry in Aylmer, Ont., said his dad and the congregation showed that kind of leadership when confronted with the pandemic lockdowns.

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Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

Herbert Hildebrandt, son of Church of God pastor Henry in Aylmer, Ont., said his dad and the congregation showed that kind of leadership when confronted with the pandemic lockdowns.

“My dad’s preaching going, ‘Something feels off, but I don’t know exactly what it is,’” Hildebrandt told the Western Standard as he recalled steps taken by the Ontario government a year ago.

“And then, it’s week one and then week two, and week three, and then the narrative changes, and it’s week four. And then people were like, ‘Okay, hold on a second.’”

The congregation was ready for their pastor’s defiance long before four weeks became fifty.

“There was a grassroots driven push, like if you’re going to step out, we will back you up,” Hildebrandt recalled.

“The vast majority of the congregation was ready for him to take a step, and they have been consistently pushing him to keep doing that. He’s not acting as a lone wolf by any means. He’s providing leadership, but it’s also leadership that is being fostered through the congregation.”

Few Canadian clergy have openly defied the lockdowns and Hildebrandt believes he knows why.

“Instead of leaders leading, they’re doing the same thing in many churches that they’re doing in politics, which is governing by poll. So it’s polling your congregation going, yeah, they’re kind of 50-50. And I know this because I’ve spoken to some that have said that… And they’re like, ‘I don’t really like what’s going on, but we need to just sit this out for a bit. Now is not the time.’”

Some believers have opposed the church instead of the government.

“Some of our largest pushback outside of the political sphere is coming from churches that either disagree or do not want to get involved…a large group that is more than happy to do nothing besides criticize those that do. And some of that may be out of ignorance. And some of that may be because they simply just prefer to not have to do the heavy lifting right now.”

In an old Bible story, Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life for unjust reasons. In his distress, he told God he was the last true prophet standing, but God said he counted 7,000 other faithful people.

“That same analogy goes for us and my dad uses it a lot. It’s that, you know what, God still has his 7,000,” Hildebrandt said.

“We’ve met so many wonderful new people that we never would have known without this [pandemic who] have really stepped out…from across this region, the province, Canada, and the world that we are now in constant communication and fellowship with, that has just made it worthwhile.”

A holy rebellion may be underfoot, he said.

“The government is just so far out of their lane; they’re not recognizing any sort of sphere of sovereignty in the church,” Hildebrandt said.

“Other pastors have risen up and said, ‘Enough’s enough,’ and they’re seeing the same thing. They’re shedding some people, they’re losing people. But at the same token, there’s many new people that are coming in and going, ‘I was looking for a godly leader. Thank you.’”

Aylmer Church of God has faced off against the government before. Twenty years ago, child protective services took the seven children from a couple in their congregation for a time because they spanked their children using a switch or paddles. Some families went to the U.S. as a result, and four families went to Chihuahua, Mexico where Herbert’s brother Peter pastored a church.

More recently, Hildebrandt has thought about his family’s journey to Canada.

“My family came early, right? When the first rumblings in Russia were going on in the Ukraine back in the 1870s, they went to Manitoba, and then Saskatchewan and other places,” Hildebrandt said.

“My wife fled the Soviet Union as a German expat with her parents at six years old in 1989 and was able to get an exit visa and get out…My wife’s grandmother spent time in the work camps. Her grandfather was taken to the Gulag for some time. They know all this. And I’m not saying Canada right now is where the Soviet Union was in the ‘60’s or ‘70’s, but it’s a scary, scary proposition to see how quickly we can get our heading in that direction.”

Harding is a Western Standard correspondent based in Saskatchewan

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The Second Battle of the Plains of Abraham: The critical battle you’ve never heard of

A critical battle of the American War of Independence was fought on the same ground in Quebec City as the decisive battle of the Seven Years War. And you’ve probably never heard of it.

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Snow swirled furiously around the fortified walls of Quebec on that fateful night. It was New Year’s Eve – December 31, 1775 – and the Red Coats who defended the city were on the lookout for American troops. They knew the Americans were out there somewhere – the city of Montreal had already fallen to the Americans only a month earlier. But for now, the British troops in the citadel of Quebec couldn’t see anything beyond the blizzard. And that is exactly why the Americans chose that moment to strike.

Of all the days in the American War for Independence, that snowy New Year’s Eve stands out as a pivotal moment in the overlapping histories of Canada and the United States. If the events of that day had gone differently, Canada as we know it might not exist today.

How poetic that the fate of Canada would yet again be decided on that same field outside the old citadel, the Plains of Abraham. Only sixteen years earlier (1759) this battlefield had seen the final blow in Britain’s conquest of New France. Now, during the American Revolution, it would play host to a new crucial contest. Perhaps we should begin to think of this night as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham II.

To the American mind at the time, it seemed natural that the Quebecois would join their fight against the British Empire. After all, the British Conquest of Quebec was a relatively fresh wound. Since that time, the French-Canadians had lived under the rule of their historic enemy. Quebec would surely jump at the opportunity to throw off the yoke of their British oppressors. Many Americans expected the French-Canadians would greet their army as liberators. 

Before the outbreak of war, the Americans wrote a series of letters to Quebec, asking them to join in solidarity against Britain: “The injuries of Boston have roused and associated every colony, from Nova-Scotia to Georgia. Your province is the only link wanting, to complete the bright and strong chain of union.”

Later – during the American occupation of Montreal – the Americans distributed propaganda flyers promising that they were fighting for “your liberty, your honour, and your happiness.”

In hindsight, one wonders how many times that old American pick-up line about being “liberators” has actually worked. It certainly didn’t work on Quebec. Whatever hope the Americans had of convincing the French-Canadians to toss away the Union Jack and join their revolution, such hopes were dashed throughout the winter of 1775-76. Even before the fateful Second Battle of the Plains of Abraham, there were already clear signs that the Quebecois were just not interested in America’s bold advances.

The first challenge was religious. The Quebecois were French-Catholics and the Americans were overwhelmingly Anglo-Protestants. Sure, the British were Anglo-Protestant too, but by the 1770s they had learned a thing or two about how to treat a papist right. They guaranteed Catholic freedom of religion, including the collection of tithes for the church. They also allowed Catholics to hold government positions, which was not allowed in other parts of the British Empire at the time.

By contrast, the American soldiers who marched into Quebec in 1775 had little respect for the Catholic religion. Some American soldiers even desecrated Catholic shrines and churches. The local clergy soon learned to distrust the occupying army, and warned their parishioners to do the same.

The second challenge was logistical. How do you feed a thousand soldiers occupying a foreign city over several hard winter months? You either bring your own food or you take it from locals. The American soldiers seized the supplies they needed, understandably leading to further local resentment.

The British wooing of Quebec at this time was clear from the Quebec Act of 1774. The act dramatically expanded the size of the colony: to the east it included Labrador, and to the west and southwest it covered parts of present-day Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. This move benefited Montreal’s fur-trading industry and shut out American ambitions for westward expansion.

The Americans listed the Quebec Act among the “Intolerable Acts” imposed by Britain, alongside acts which put Massachusetts under military rule and allowed the seizing of colonists’ property for British soldiers. The Americans would surely overturn the Quebec Act as soon as they won the war. With both sides’ intentions clear, Quebec’s elites naturally preferred British victory in the war.

That brings us back to New Year’s Eve 1775. The American side was led by two officers, Benedict Arnold (who would later – and infamously – defect to the British) and Richard Montgomery. Their combined force had only about 1,200 troops. The British side numbered about 1,800 and they also had the advantage of heavy artillery and shelter behind the fortified walls of Quebec City.

The American attempt to take the city was a disaster from the start. They launched a two-pronged attack, with Montgomery’s forces attacking the south of the city, and Arnold’s troops attacking the north. The snowstorm at first gave them the element of surprise, but it soon proved to be more trouble than it was worth. Without cover, the Americans’ guns were fully exposed to the snow, which risked dampening their gunpowder. To make up for the poor visibility, some Americans lit lanterns which only made them walking targets. 

On the south side, the British noticed the American lanterns. They waited until the Americans were at close range before opening fire. General Montgomery was killed in the barrage, causing many of his men to panic and retreat. 

On the north side, Arnold started his assault after the British were already alerted to their presence. Arnold’s troops faced a barrage of musket fire, but they finally managed to enter the city gates. During the breach, Arnold’s leg was hit and he had to fall back. Arnold’s company was quickly taken over by Daniel Morgan, who led them further into the city where they had planned to meet up with Montgomery’s troops. Of course, Montgomery never made it that far, and Morgan’s men were left completely alone. A street fight ensued for several hours, but Morgan’s men were vastly outnumbered and surrounded. They eventually surrendered at 9 a.m. the following morning, and 400 American soldiers were taken prisoner.

Meanwhile in Montreal, American soldiers continued to occupy that city for several more months until British reinforcements sailed down the St. Lawrence in May 1776. Vastly outnumbered, the Americans fled to the south and their Quebec campaign was over.

By the time the Americans launched their surprise attack on the Plains of Abraham, they had already failed to win the hearts and minds of the Quebecois. The British had promised them the moon and won the cooperation of Quebec elites. The Americans’ crushing military defeat during Plains of Abraham II ultimately put a nail in the coffin of their ambitions for Quebec to join the revolution. Although the Americans would go on to win the independence of 13 colonies, Quebec would not be among them.

Most people have never heard of this critical battle, possibly because all sides would rather forget about it. For the Americans, it was an embarrassing early defeat that fits awkwardly with the patriotic narrative of their successful revolution. For the British, the victory was overshadowed by their devastating loss of the 13 Colonies. For Quebecois nationalists who decry Anglo rule, it may be an embarrassment to remember that when faced with the choice to throw off the Union Jack or keep it, Quebec chose to keep it.

Still, the long-term consequences of this battle cannot be overlooked. The fact that the British kept Quebec meant that they would continue to have a strong presence in the heart of North America despite ultimately losing the American War for Independence. From that foothold they could rebuild their English population north of the St. Lawrence and in the Maritimes, starting with the Loyalist Migrations of 1780s. Without that British imperial presence in North America, the state of Canada as we know it simply could not exist today.

And it all took place one snowy night on that little patch of land on the banks of the St. Lawrence. As it did sixteen years earlier, the Plains of Abraham once again determined the fate of empires, nations, and the future of North America.

James Forbes is the Western Heritage Columnist for the Western Standard

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WESTROCK: Whitesnake’s Hoekstra on his new solo album and recording during lockdowns

Ernest Skinner interviews Joel Hoekstra. He even plays a few preview chords just for Western Readers.

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I had the chance to chat with Whitesnake guitarist Joel Hoekstra about his dynamite solo project Hoekstra 13. This is his second solo album after Running Games from Hoekstra 13 and it has been getting rave reviews from around the world since he released a couple tracks in advance of the February 12 release date for the commoners.

When I tell you the Whitesnake and Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO) guitar player’s new album is dynamite, it’s because it truly is. It is more work to BS your way through a subpar performance than to just avoid it altogether, so referring to the above, it’s seriously on the mark as one of the best new hard rock melodic albums I have heard in a few years.

Joel Hoekstra has a special preview for western standard readers

In case you have been in lockdown for the better part of the last 20 years, Joel is one of the classiest axe masters out there. He has toured as Cher’s guitarist, performed in Broadway’s Rock of Ages, and had stints with Night Ranger, but his claim to fame is clearly his stage presence and melodic mastery with Whitesnake and the TSO.

To sum up Running Games, it’s a very smooth and crunchy riff-oriented album with power vocals from Russell Allen, who many would agree is one of the best all-around singers in the world. Early on, Russ made a name for himself by belting them out with hard rock legends Symphony X.

Listening to the album, you are going to hear many great things, and an Yngwie Malmsteen vibe is one of them for many a reason. Rounding out the all-star lineup are Derek Sherinian (Sons of Apollo, Dream Theatre), Tony Franklin (Blue Murder, The Firm), Vinny Appice (Dio, Black Sabbath), and last but not least, Jeff Scott Soto (Sons of Apollo, Yngwie Malmsteen, TSO) on backing vocals.

The musical influences that Joel is fond of are apparent at times. In addition to his own style – which encompasses a vast library of sounds – there is no doubt that Satriani, Vai, Vandenberg, Viv Campbell, David Gilmour – and maybe even Ernest Skinner – are part of his musical DNA.

On tracks from the album “Fantasy” and “Reach the Sky”, I hear a Whitesnake-meets-Led Zeppelin beat, and Pink Floyd guitar tone at times.

To put things in perspective, I spoke with three world-class guitarists and had them listen to the album and this is what they told me.

Rik Emmett (Triumph): “There is an elite group of rock guitarists on the planet, a small handful of consummate professionals who can play with full mastery of technique and passion.  Joel Hoekstra is one of them. When it comes to the added value of stage presence, charisma, and physical style, he’s the total rock god package. Running Games is dynamite, but on the track (Finish Line) he’s a full-blown fire-breathing monster. There are arc-welding sparks flying off the guitar parts on this track.”

Sean Kelly (Nelly Furtado, Lee Aaron, Helix, Crash Kelly): “Joel is one of the best guitarists I have ever seen live; a perfect blend of melodic maturity and dazzling technical proficiency. I had the pleasure of sharing a bill with him in Oklahoma when I was in Helix and he was in Night Ranger. Running Games is an amazing piece of Classic melodic metal art with a modern production touch. It is delivered with all the taste and firepower we’ve come to expect from Joel.”

Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal: “[I] love this album and Joel! Joel has it all – emotion, virtuosity, identity; he’s a great songwriter, great showman, and he’s a great dude.”

Before you go and order the album and read my summary of my chat with Joel; check out this wild tune below and you’ll hear what all the fuss is about. I also need to ask: is it me, or does anybody else feel a Surfing with the Alien nostalgia via Joe Satriani with this animated video and Joes’ album cover?

Family Dude

Joel was just as upbeat as the first time I interviewed him. Sometimes you can sense that the artist is tired, bored, or just doesn’t want to repeat the same thing over and over again. Joel’s energy was ceaseless from the time he picked up the phone with a “hey dude”.

We didn’t just talk music, but also his family. The rock star is refreshingly grounded with his wife of 17-years and two youngsters, aged nine and five. Following in his old man’s footsteps, his nine-year-old son is currently into Iron Maiden. When asked what his five-year-old daughter listens to, he responds with a chuckle, “Frozen.”  

If you’re a guitarist and are wondering; he used about three guitars in recording Running Games. He used a Taylor on acoustic, a Strat for the cleaner parts, and of course his prized gold top Les Paul. The album was recorded remotely during the COVID lockdown, and Joel thinks it is the way to go.”It doesn’t put pressure on you playing in your own studio, as you play when you are in the mood”

I could go on about Running Games and Joel, but I have to get back to listening to it. Get your copy via Amazon, Apple Music, or check out his website at www.joelhoekstra.com.

On a somber note – please keep Rik Emmett in your thoughts tonight, as he told me his father passed away yesterday morning.

Ernest Skinner is the Westrock columnist for the Western Standard


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