Even if you’re not familiar with his name, chances are you know who Gordie Johnson is.
You might know him as the lead singer from the ‘90s-conquering Canadian blues-reggae-rock band Big Sugar. Or maybe you know him by his titular moniker in the cowboy metal group Grady. Or perhaps from his numerous and varied production and co-songwriting credits with artists such as The Trews, Joel Plaskett Emergency, and the great Warren Haynes (of Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule) — to name a small fraction.
But next Friday, October 18, the multi-faceted Gordie Johnson will be bringing what may be his most intriguing and personal project to date — Sit Down, Servant!! — to Nelson. He will be sharing the stage with veteran Canadian musician Tom Wilson’s latest psychedelic folk group, LeE HARVeY OsMOND. Listening to the energetic (and endlessly quotable) Johnson describe this new incarnation of his musicality, it’s clear that Spiritbar is in for “a deep night of trippy music.”
Whereas his projects Big Sugar and even Grady are more easily defined, thus more easily written and talked about, Sit Down, Servant!! (essentially a duo with Big Sugar’s drummer, Stephane Beaudin) is a different sort of animal.
“We started Sit Down, Servant!! with absolutely no concern whatsoever for fitting into any category,” says Johnson. “I had surgery last year on my wrist and it gave me an opportunity to be doing music that might not have been as physically challenging but was more spiritually challenging. But as we’ve been doing [shows] it continues to evolve every gig. Now I’m playing synth bass pedals, melodica, and lap steel… We go from playing sacred steel,” a gospel roots music tradition “to old reggae songs in dub, to standards and weird soundtracks. Sometimes we’ll go 30 minutes without looking up.”
There are many veteran rock idols who would be content to dust off the old songs, worm into the drycleaned tight pants, and parade their same songs to the same crowds, comfortable in their ruts. Not Johnson: “I got no ruts!” he laughs. And looking at the relatively short but awesomely eclectic history of Sit Down, Servant!! thus far, it’s clear he’s telling the truth.
There’s the time that they cut a record with the infamous Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys and became a go-to backing band for rap groups in Austin: “There we were just sitting playing one night in Austin and [he] just got up on stage, grabbed the mic, and started rapping. Like, oh my god, it’s the original censorship, triple X rapper who’s on stage with Sit Down, Servant!! Far out! So we did a record with him and then he just started bringing other MCs out to sit in with us.”
Or the time they joined in with Warren Haynes for 90 improvised minutes that spanned from “electric era Miles Davis to Howlin’ Wolf blues songs that could go anywhere. And we did it in front of 4,000 people,” he laughs. “Like wow, glad we didn’t bother to rehearse this!”
Johnson is a musician in the truest sense of the word, and Sit Down, Servant!! is his vehicle to explore that integral part of himself, free of the constraints of marketing and contracts.
“I had a musical career before Big Sugar too, where I was playing all kinds of different stuff,” he says. “So in a lot of ways I get to go back to music that I used to play when I wouldn’t care about songs on the radio and videos and all of that. For me [Sit Down, Servant!!] is like, ‘You wanna look at my record collection? Here it is.’”
So don’t expect Gordie Johnson to slow down any time soon. “We don’t take nights off,” he relates. “If you’re going to be away from home, you might as well be playing!”
And in one week’s time at Spiritbar, he will be.