Great Big Sea
at the Painted Bride,
Philadelphia, PA
(26 March 1999)

Great Big Sea, a maritime folk-rockin' band from Canada's adopted child, Newfoundland, completely wowed a Philadelphia audience Friday despite a lukewarm warm-up band, perpetual sound problems, a mediocre performance space and a thirsty crowd.

The band, which has produced three excellent albums of hard-working music with a strong coastal-Celtic flair, is definitely building a core of diehard fans south of the border. Every show I've seen or even heard about in the past year or so has been sold out to a roaring, enthusiastic crowd of Great Big Fans who always seem to know every word by heart.

I love to tout Great Big Sea to friends, acquaintances, co-workers and anyone else I meet on the street who seems inclined to discuss music. I urge them to buy a copy of the band's American release, Rant & Roar, or track down the band's three Canadian albums (Great Big Sea, Up and Play). When I make a trip up to Toronto, I inevitably come home with a few copies of those albums for friends who've requested them.

But as much as I love Great Big Sea's recordings, they just don't measure up to the live experience. We've all heard bands who sound great in the studio but should never be allowed on stage with live equipment, right? Rest assured, Great Big Sea isn't one of them. I've been fortunate enough to see them four times now: twice in one night in an uptown Manhattan bar, once in the seedy Pontiac Grill on South Street, Philadelphia, and, most recently, in the Painted Bride, a Philadelphia arts theater.

I've got plenty to say about the band's performance, but first a word about opening acts. Talk about hit or miss experiences! In New York, Great Big Sea was preceded on stage by Mary Jane Lamond, a Cape Breton vocalist who sings in Gaelic and fronts an excellent band of musicians ... alone, Lamond would have been worth the trip. At the Pontiac, the first act was a talentless country twang duo who shall -- because I don't want to be a tattletale -- remain nameless.

At the Bride, we were treated to two openers. First up was Willy Porter, a man with a guitar, a wicked sense of a whimsy and a strong emotional attachment to his microphone. Porter gave the audience 30 minutes of singer-songwriter stuff about sharing beer, hauling Tilt-a-Whirls, half moons and, um, a moose and squirrel on a dogsled trek to Newfoundland. Porter has a good voice, an easy kinship with his audience and an excellent guitar presence. He thumped, plunked and strummed some amazing sounds out of the instrument, but never so much that it detracted from his amusing, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics. I thoroughly enjoyed his half-hour on stage ... but at the same time, I think 30 minutes was probably enough.

Unfortunately, 30 minutes was too much for the Push Stars, the well-intentioned but unremarkable band that followed. (I assume they got second billing only because they outnumbered Porter and could beat him up in the parking lot if he didn't yield.) The Push Stars are a garage trio who spend far too much time either shopping in thrift stores or raiding the closets of overly sentimental older brothers, but I suppose the wardrobe choices could have been an attention-getting tactic; certainly their clothing was the only real source of comment I heard in the crowd when their set was through.

But enough about opening acts. The real story here is Great Big Sea, and when they finally took the stage, the audience responded with a roar. Hell, I sometimes think the band could walk onstage and spit, and still get thunderous cheers. But fortunately, Great Big Sea always puts on a dynamic show; from the opening bodhran beat of "Process Man" through to the second encore, the Painted Bride auditorium was filled with fun, unceasing energy and some very great music. The band plays with a refreshing lack of pretention and an endless supply of vigor.

Alan Doyle, the band's lead singer and guitarist, is also the most vocal of the four, and he always looks like he just got away with something slightly mischevious. Between songs he almost always chats with the crowd, more like a conversation with old chums than a mere introduction of the next tune, and his rambling stories seem a source of endless, weary amusement to his mates. Doyle sings most of the songs with a deftly wielded voice that is warm and wild, with a touch of gravel ... somehow, at the same time, whiskey-rough and whiskey-smooth. His vocals have amazing depth and power, accompanied by some of the most incredible facial and bodily contortions I've seen on stage. Even during the most poignant of songs, which Doyle emotes with Oscar-worthy skill, a trace of hell-bent glee lurks around his eyes. He shines on the occasional ballad, like his own not-quite-love song "Fast As I Can," but his hallmark is the raucous and woolly pub song, usually celebrating the merits of ribaldry, drinking and the lure of the sea.

Standouts in a phenomenal set include the contagiously happy "Ordinary Day" and "When I'm Up," "The Old Black Rum," the party-hearty "Goin' Up" and "The Jolly Butcher," a philandering tale with a sobering moral. Doyle's rendition of R.E.M.'s "End of the World," following an oddly fun "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, is a tongue-twister of a song that I believe surpasses the original. New Doyle tunes like "Consequence Free" and "Old Brown's Daughter" are something to look forward to on the band's next album, due out (at last report) this summer.

Sean McCann sings less, but he can be counted on to belt out some of the band's best tunes, including "The Night Pat Murphy Died," "Mari-Mac" and the always-stunning "General Taylor." He introduces his songs a little more sparingly than Doyle and treats their subjects -- usually death or love -- with delightful deadpan wit. I can almost forgive his taste in belts.

His voice gets the best workout in "General Taylor," an a cappella song featuring four incredible voices in spine-tingling four-part vocal harmonies. McCann tilts his head back and aims for the rafters, where the words ricochet and resound with startling force. "Mari-Mac," usually one of his best numbers, unfortunately suffered from a poor sound mix this time, but that didn't make the sheer velocity of McCann's version any less impressive to hear.

McCann is also the band's rhythm section. Although occasionally playing guitar and once or twice tootling on a tin whistle, his main instrument is the Irish bodhran, which he plays with effortless grace. Singing or drumming, McCann makes every move look easy.

Bassist Darrell Power is the quiet one, the person in every group who draws little attention but is always to blame for the greatest mayhem. Throughout the show he kept fairly quiet, taking the spotlight only rarely to sing tunes including "Little Beggarman," "Jakey's Gin" and "Excursion Around the Bay." He also added deep backing vocals to other songs and maintained a wicked grin from beginning to end.

The most versatile member of the band is Bob Hallett. He was constantly trading instruments during the show, playing a mean pair of fiddles, a mandola, tin whistle and low whistle, and a variety of squeeze boxes. While I'm always a sucker for a well-played fiddle -- and Hallett is no slouch on that instrument, believe me -- it was on the button accordion he showed his greatest strength, chugging through tunes like "Billy Peddle" with an amazingly tight sound.

Hallett also sings, although he was the only member never to take lead for a song. He also seems to be the least comfortable on stage, sometimes wearing a look of thinly veiled panic and at other times turning his back to play as if worried someone might be watching him.

But nothing could dampen the crowd's enthusiasm, and the auditorium was transformed for an evening into one big Newfoundland kitchen party, complete with chair-boppin', lusty singing and dancing wherever there was room on the floor. Great Big Sea certainly attracts the kind of fans who like to sing along and they always seem to know the words. The band proved that by occasionally dropping out and letting the crowd carry entire choruses for them.

Their demand was so great that the band was called back for, not one, but two encores. The first showcased "Old Brown's Daughter" (possibly subtitled "Blow Me!"), another a cappella tune that Doyle sang with winsome schoolboy bashfulness between further examples of excellent four-part vocal harmony, and Power's hard-drinkin' "Jakey's Gin." The band returned for a second bow and a rousing "Rant & Roar/Run Runaway" medley. Even so, the crowd seemed desperate for more. It was only Doyle's promise of a return visit soon that pacified them.

Fortunately, the next show in Philly will be elsewhere, for the Painted Bride is not a great venue. The hard metal seats were crammed together so tightly that anyone of average height or more had to press knees uncomfortably into the seats ahead and everyone became intimately acquainted with their neighbors' elbows. There were no drinks for sale -- and let's face it, pub bands are best heard in pubs, with a cold pint or two close to hand -- and even the coffeehouse adjoining the auditorium was closed for business. The acoustics were mediocre, a problem made worse by some bonehead sound engineering that managed, towards the end of the show, to do the impossible: flatten and dampen McCann's soaring vocals.

On the other hand, the theater did allow for more up-close and friendly interaction with the band than most venues with raised stages would allow. The air was smoke-free and there wasn't the din of clinking glasses and bar room conversation to distract the crowd from the main event. But the venue is a minor matter; a good site won't help a bad band, or vice versa. Great Big Sea seems able to work with any conditions, using whatever space is available to them to great advantage. I wish more bands had half this much fun on stage. (And damn, these guys would be fun to party with!)

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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Read reviews of Great Big Sea's recordings here.