Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Great Big Sea still going strong 20 years on

Great Big Sea

Where: City National Grove of Anaheim

When: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Alan Doyle, left, and Séan McCann, right, kick off Tuesday night's set.
Photo courtesy of Kelly A. Swift

Last Saturday (March 2, 2013), dada wrapped up its 20th anniversary tour with the band's 33rd and final stop at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

On Tuesday night, March 5, Great Big Sea launched its own 20th anniversary tour with a tour-opening date at City National Grove of Anaheim, the first of – you guessed it – 33 dates that will take the band across North America. At first look, both trios share little in common musically. But after watching Canadian folk rockers Great Big Sea, it's clear that no matter what the particular musical brand, it takes something special for a band that sails mostly below the commercial music radar to stay together and continue to stray true to its vision 20 years after setting out on its journey...

Below is my review first published in Soundcheck on The Orange County Register site on Wednesday, March 6, 2013:

Canadian folk-rockers Great Big Sea at City National Grove of Anaheim made it clear Tuesday night: No matter what the musical brand, it takes something special for a group that sails mostly below commercial radar to stay together and continue to fully connect with fans for two decades.

"Anaheim, California – the first day of the tour!" Alan Doyle, principal vocalist and one of the band's three multi-instrumentalists, declared early in the night. "Twenty years in the making. Thank you very much."

The export from Newfoundland and Labrador, which performs sea shanties, old folk songs and original rockers with the same firepower that O.C.'s own Fenians and American Wake bring in their approach to traditional Irish music, fused a joyous spirit, stunning harmonies and infectious music-making into a fast-paced concert.

Featuring many of the songs on their aptly titled XX retrospective, GBS was the lone act on the bill and made the most of that spotlight via a 2½-hour performance divided into halves. The first was mostly acoustic, although rousing opener "Ordinary Day" had many in the front section on their feet and moving, while the second portion picked up the pace with more high-octane material.

Original members Doyle (guitar, bouzouki, mandolin), Séan McCann (bodhran, guitar, tin whistle) and Bob Hallett (fiddle, accordion, mandolin, whistles, bagpipes), all of whom contribute vocals and are backed by touring bassist Murray Foster and drummer Kris Macfarlane, were firing on all cylinders. They defied any notion that, since this was the first night of a countrywide tour, things might not be fully in sync.

"The Chemical Workers Song" began with Doyle singing a cappella, his vocals then supported by McCann's precise beat on bodhran before the emergence of full harmonies filled the large theater with a bursting sound. The depth and range of the band's songs was further enhanced by a seemingly endless number of variations on time-honored forms.

Their impressive two-, three-, four-, even five-part vocals meshed with both the material and its old-world instrumentation, with the audience itself (primarily clapping and joining in singalongs) helping give the concert an intoxicating feel from start to finish.

Doyle handled the majority of lead vocals, but McCann made the most of his moments. "England," a beautiful original ballad, featured his tenor soaring over Hallett's haunting whistle. Later, he mined similarly rich territory when he sang the verses in "Safe upon the Shore" alone, his mates' glorious voices entering for choruses. That approach worked again on the new Americana-tinged "Live This Life," during which the troupe conveyed chilling emotions amid a lush arrangement.

The up-tempo rockers later in the set kept the energy level high. "Love Me Tonight," with its mainstream beat, big harmonies and tin whistle layers, segued into a rollicking take on the Celtic-flavored "The Night Pat Murphy Died," anchored by Hallett's blazing accordion. That number had a bit of the Beach Boys' "California Girls" thrown in, and the eclectic set also included a completely reworked cover of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," effectively driven by Doyle's mandolin.

And for those seeking to celebrate this night, as well as hoist a glass to Great Big Sea's unlikely stateside rise (they're beloved up north), "Old Black Rum" provided the perfect means to make a toast.

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