Great Big Sea,
(Wea, 1999)

Recently I saw Great Big Sea in concert at a Scots-Irish music fest in King of Prussia, Pa. The band's high-energy 90-minute show seemed to dominate the day's events, packing in larger crowds than headliner Seven Nations and the lively Hadrian's Wall. The only disappointment was the absence of Turn, Great Big Sea's latest Canadian release, which a trade agreement with their American distributor prevents them from selling south of the border. (U.S. residents may buy only the compilation album Rant & Roar, but I urge them to use whatever means necessary to track down the band's Canadian CDs: Great Big Sea, Up and Play.)

Anyway, it was with a great universal sense of timing that the Canadian and U.S. postal services, along with the lovely Sara of Toronto, conspired to place a copy of Turn in my eager hands the very next day.

Anyone who's heard GBS in recent months will already be familiar with some of the album's highlights. It begins with an anthem for free-spirited people weighed down by guilt, "Consequence Free," vigorously belted out by singer/guitarist Alan Doyle. A cheerful original number about good-natured anarchy, the song will particularly delight recovering Catholics -- and it's a wicked-good way to start the album. (This is also the first single from the album, and its performance style definitely gives a nod to popular radio play.)

"Feel It Turn," written and sung by Sean McCann, is an upbeat, optimistic tune featuring some particular nice whistle work by Bob Hallett. The band then turns its attention back to its traditional Newfoundland roots for the heroic Maritime story-song "Jack Hinks," led again by singer Doyle. Hallett adds Celtic sea-faring spice with an energetic spin on the accordion.

Next, Doyle sings "Demasduit Dream." Written by Hallett, this one takes the perspective of Newfoundland's natives and their horror when the Europeans first arrived to surplant them. Then Doyle sings of the pain of parting, experienced often when the band is on the road, in the quiet, tender ballad "Boston and St. John's."

"Margarita," another McCann original, is a fun and flirty number despite its unrequited concert crush, followed by "Trois Navires de Ble (Three Wheat Ships)," a traditional song from Newfoundland's French quarter which gives us a chance to hear Doyle sing French like a native. (Native Newfoundlander, actually, but who's quibbling?) McCann gives a rousing performance of the traditional "Ferryland Sealer," which has a high body count and won't be popular with most Greenpeace supporters. Then Doyle, always the romantic, shares vocal duties with McCann for their lovestruck original "Can't Stop Falling."

"Old Brown's Daughter" is an exceptional treat, a traditional a capella love ballad sung winsomely by Doyle, backed by more of the band's famous vocal harmonies. (You know it must be love when the desire for a girl leads a man into politics.) That leads straight into "I'm a Rover," the liveliest and wildest tune on the album, a classic of the love-and-alcohol variety, and it proudly joins the ranks of McCann favorites.

"Captain Wedderburn" is a traditional riddle song, with the prize for guessing the answers to six posers being a night of love and passion. OK, the song is a little glum-sounding, considering that the prize is so delightful, but it's a good number nonetheless. It's made even better when the Chieftains, who invited Great Big Sea to join them on their grand Irish-Canadian album Fire in the Kitchen, jump in for a guest performance of the gorgeous air "Give Me Your Hand."

The album rolls to a close with the raucous "Bad as I Am," a McCann/Hallett collaboration about a love which might not be right, but is OK right now.

Turn is a solid album all-around with several stand-out tracks -- although I wouldn't say there are quite as many exceptional numbers as in the past two albums. The band seems to be catering more towards its growing American audience and may be recording with more of a thought to radio play than they did in years past, but the tactic could backfire if they lose the original spark which made these roving Newfoundlanders so unique. Thankfully, that hasn't happened yet, and there's every indication that Great Big Sea will easily maintain its stride as more and more people outside Canada's borders discover their sound.

Already I'm eagerly looking forward to the band's next studio album ... and I'm still hoping and waiting for a recording of the band's amazing concert presence. Great Big Sea has yet to disappoint.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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