Great Big Sea,
(Warner Music Canada, 1997)

It was a shared interest in modern variations on Celtic music that first exposed me to Great Big Sea. A friend from Canada sent me tapes of the band's second and third albums, Up and Play, and in return I swapped a copy of More Power to Your Elbow's Sold Out: Live at the Arena and the Oysterband's Holy Bandits.

Listening to the GBS tape for the first time, I was startled to hear a new version of the Oysterband's mega-happy hit, "When I'm Up." (The two versions must have passed each other in the mail between Lancaster and Toronto, because Sara and I received those tapes within a day of each other.) Anyway, members of the Oysterband, I later learned, were thrilled with the cover, which brought the English band a new wave of Canadian fans, and the two bands shared the stage for a popular European tour.

But I digress. Obviously, Great Big Sea warranted more attention, and it wasn't long before I'd acquired all three of the band's Canadian albums. I was pleased to see the band's lineup had remained intact throughout.

Most of the vocals are enthusiastically handled by guitarist Alan Doyle, but other band members don't let their throats get rusty. Bodhranist/guitarist Sean McCann in particular belts out some powerful vocals, taking lead on the likes of "Little Beggarman" and "General Taylor." Darrell Power (bass guitar) and Bob Hallett (fiddle, accordion, tin whistle) also sing a few leads, and both add tremendous vocal harmony to a number of songs.

Play was released two years after Up, and it showed the band growing together even more with yet another set of memorable tunes. Covers include the Oysterband's "When I'm Up" and R.E.M.'s "End of the World." Traditionals include "The Night Pat Murphy Died," which rivals even the best of Irish wake songs for pure morbid hilarity, shanties "Donkey Riding" and "Jolly Roving Tar," and "Jakey's Gin." A hidden bonus is "Little Beggarman," an old standard which benefits from the Great Big Sea flair.

A special highlight is the traditional "General Taylor," which spotlights McCann's vocal talents and the band's overall harmonic abilities. The song is sung a cappella, and the voices mesh perfectly for a powerful rendition of the tune.

And there are still more original tracks, proving once again that composition is a grand tradition as well. The best of them is the cheerful Doyle/McCann collaboration, "Ordinary Day," but also notable are Doyle's "How Did We Get from Saying I Love You," McCann's "Something I Should Know" and Hallett's "Seagulls" and "Recruiting Sargeant."

Great Big Sea keeps getting better and better. I can't wait to hear what they come out with next.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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If you like this band, be sure to check out:
Spirit of the West
Hadrian's Wall