Great Big Sea
at South Orange Performing Arts Centre,
South Orange, New Jersey
(30 October 2008)

I've been to many a Great Big Sea concert since my first in 1998. I can honestly say that, after 15 years, the band still has some surprises in store for its audience. I had a privilege of attending my most recent GBS show at the South Orange Performing Arts Centre in South Orange, New Jersey. The venue is an intimate place with about 400 seats. For this part of the Fortunate Tour, in support of the latest CD Fortune's Favour, Great Big Sea seems to favor small performance spaces and a two-set "Evening with Great Big Sea" type show.

Before the show, Newfoundland music could be heard on the PA, adding to the atmosphere. The show began on time with the chorus of the "Banks of Newfoundland" booming over the sound system as the musicians took their places on a darkened stage. When all were in place, the drums set the beat and the show opened explosively with "Love Me Tonight," a rocker from the new CD. The seasoned fans showed unusual restraint, staying seated for the song, but clapping along. From the lack of singing, it appeared as though many in the audience were unfamiliar with the new material. The age range was typical for a GBS show, from young children to grandparents.

If you haven't seen Great Big Sea since 2003, you'd be shocked to find a full drum set manned by Kris MacFarlane from Nova Scotia and a bass guitar played by Murray Foster of the now-defunct Moxy Fruvous. MacFarlane's drums have really added another, deeper dimension to the music of the band. Foster's voice has also added some amazing bass harmonies that resonate in your chest during songs like "River Driver's Lament" and "General Taylor." You'd also be delighted to discover that Sean McCann's tenor voice is still powerful, that Alan Doyle has added electric guitar to his repertoire and that Bob Hallett has added harmonica to his growing list of instruments. The sound mix for this show was superb, handling both Hallett's low whistle and Doyle's electric guitar equally well.

In addition to the great sound system, the light show only added to the music. An example of this was "Process Man" sung against a dark blue background, offset by bright white lights and a lightning effect when they sang the phrase, "The thunder all around me." McFarlane was amazing, playing three instruments at once to give a great percussive effect for the song.

The switch between the old and new material, rock and folk, dance music and ballad, would repeat itself all evening. The band would whip the crowd into a frenzy, getting the audience to its feet, then give all a breather as they launched into some hilarious banter or sang a tender ballad. McCann's soaring tenor voice was simultaneously sweet and despairing when he sang the bittersweet, traditional-sounding ballad called "England," which is one of his original songs written for the album.

Audience participation is a staple for a Great Big Sea show, and that remains the same. But tonight there were several changes in the pace of the show that made the audience sit up and listen. Toward the end of the first set, each of the five band members has been taking turns doing a solo. And so, at that point in the evening, Hallett found himself alone on the stage. Hallett solos have been a rare occurrence in the past 15 years.

Believing that telling the story of the song is as important as the singing, Hallett spent a few minutes telling the audience about colcannon, a Newfoundland/Irish dish made from leftovers. The song was simply called "Colcannon." Even though he brought out a harmonica to get a good starting note, Hallett started way too high and needed to begin again a few notes lower. He ended in a typically Newfoundland manner, speaking the last few words. It was well-received by the audience, who seemed to know they had witnessed something unheard of 15 years ago.

After the solo, Doyle's song, "Company of Fools" -- co-written with Russell Crowe -- got almost everyone in the theatre on their feet, singing the catchy chorus and dancing away. And once again, the old followed the new and Slade's "Run Runaway" ended the first set in a rip-roaring fashion. The band marched off for intermission, leaving the audience right where they intended, breathless and wanting more.

The second half started out in a most unusual way, another big change in this Great Big Sea show. Doyle sat back on the drum riser playing a tune on his mandola, joined after a few measures by Hallett on accordion. Then McCann joined in with his bodhran, Foster on bass and MacFarlane on guitar to round out the tunes. The first tune was unfamiliar to me, but the second was "Harbour Buffett" from The Hard & the Easy album, and the third was the traditional "Irish Washerwoman," to which they sang a verse of "I'se the B'y." Starting the second half with a non-participation song would have been anathema in a GBS show years ago. But it was an unusual but effective way to give the audience a chance to focus on the music alone in this intimate setting instead of singing along.

The second half seemed to fly by, with the band going from one number into the next, singing a song co-written with Chris Trapper -- " Long Lost Love" -- followed by "Scolding Wife," the familiar sea shanty "General Taylor," the ever-popular "Helmethead" and their new rock anthem, "Dream to Live." With the emphasis on rock 'n' roll in the new album, "Dream to Live" has become a defining moment in the show, replacing "General Taylor" in that category. It is so well performed, with soaring harmonies and instruments joined by all voices in the audience singing the chorus. It is sure to become a signature song of the band in the future.

The one thing that has not changed in a typical GBS show is the placement of what I've termed the Holy Triumvirate -- the "Consequence Free," "Mari Mac" and "Ordinary Day" end-of-the-show songs. These three have followed each other in order for the last seven years I've been seeing GBS live. Although "Mari Mac" began a bit slow, it picked up to a frenzy by the end and McCann's vocals could be clearly heard over the drums and other instruments -- another example of the superb acoustics in the theatre. "An Evening with Great Big Sea" ended with their most identifiable song, the one that might define GBS in history -- "Ordinary Day."

Doyle's "Walk on the Moon" was the first encore song and was followed by an impromptu song about South Orange, which found Doyle uncharacteristically at a loss for words. This impromptu bit has become a staple at recent shows and is something different every night, just like the solos.

"Old Black Rum" was supposed to close the encore but after its enthusiastic singing by the audience, the band came out to the edge of the stage for an additional song. The closing number was an off-mic version of the a cappella "Old Brown's Daughter." What a way to end a show! The clear harmonies bounced off the walls of the venue and rang in the hall after they had stopped singing. Four hundred audience members made enough noise to let the band know their efforts were appreciated.

It was a different kind of show than the first one I saw in 1998 at the Pontiac Grille. But the band has grown both musically and performance-wise and nothing has been left by the wayside. Even with the new rock 'n' roll material and changes in personnel, Great Big Sea did what they have been doing for the past 15 years -- left the audience breathless and wanting more!

by Anne Tenaglia
7 February 2009

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