They say you can't please everybody, but tell that to Alan Doyle. Headlining recently at New York institution B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, the always-congenial Newfoundlander (lead singer of iconic band Great Big Sea, now in the midst of his solo tour) joined with The Dunwells and Amy Helm to produce the rare musical hat trick. Accompanied by sweet spirits and the scent of barbecue wafting through the air, each act held the crowd enthralled, and fans of one became eager, rapid converts to the other two.
The experience started with the seating. While not an intimate love-in like Joe's Pub, and lacking the too-cool-for-school quality of the Gramercy Theatre, B.B. King's sturdily accommodating venue encourages a forced communality. In other words, if you're a perpetual singleton, you're automatically placed at a table full of strangers.
Luckily this writer landed a spot directly in front of the stage, adding herself to the party of three enthusiastic Dunwells devotees. It was the perfect vantage point for an evening full of the most pleasant surprises -- a night in an hourglass, the sands of time slipping away before you completely knew what hit you.
Amy Helm kicked off the action with throbbing folk-rock beats. The curvaceous blonde crooned both covers and original songs in a deliciously sultry growl. Reminiscent of Stevie Nicks and Carly Simon, Helm's is the sort of voice that reaches your heart first and then spreads like a warming drink through your entire body.
Her bandmates Daniel Littleton, Byron Isaacs, and Justin Guip infused their melodies with an earthy, hypnotic power. Guip, a three-time Grammy winner, proved particularly attention-grabbing as he pounded bundled sticks against his drum in fascinating rhythm.
Next came The Dunwells, a charming and energetic British band of lifelong mates (two brothers, a cousin, and their best friends from childhood). In appearance and tone they have an updated Flock of Seagulls quality -- the sensation of an eighties flashback kept recurring throughout their set -- but the good humor and sincerity with which "the boys" deliver their songs mark The Dunwells as a thoroughly unique entry into the contemporary indie scene.
During the first two performances, the audience had been gently appreciative, happy to groove along under the sway of good vibrations. But it takes Canadians to make the party. The combined talents of the Alan Doyle Trio (Alan, violinist Kendel Carson, and guitarist Cory Tetford) injected sudden revival into the atmosphere from the moment the big man leapt onstage. Instantly B.B. King's burst with new life as Alan regaled the crowd with jokes and stories between songs, including his observation that the outside marquee reading "A Doyle Dunwells A Helm" sounded like an adult film title, fitting well with the pornstache he's currently sporting (for his part in the upcoming movie Winter's Tale).
Carson, who had made a guest appearance with Amy Helm's band earlier in the evening, sizzled on guitar and her trusty fiddle, a joy to watch. Tetford and drummer Kris Macfarlane displayed their immensely impressive range, switching from up-tempo rock to ponderous ballads and back without a single misstep. All hands were on deck to share a selection of Great Big Sea tunes and tracks from Alan's solo album Boy on Bridge with an electrified room. From the opening lyrics of "Where I Belong," an impassioned ode to Newfoundland, to the Trio's final encore, the crowd's contented energy metamorphosed to a vigorous happiness.
It's hard to describe exactly what ripples through an audience on an occasion such as this, how so many different people can be automatically unified at the strum of a chord or the peal of a voice. The best explanation is that, instinctively, they recognize something familiar. Alan's admitted before that some of his songs contain nuances non-Newfoundlanders might miss, but his music is endowed with a special empathy -- in his own words, "a genuine desire to want to understand how other people's experience is different from your own and similar to it" -- that makes the sound of every note feel like home. This is what we search for as fans, the sense of all-encompassing fellowship, and this is what Friday's three acts were able to give, resulting in a night to remember. As they say, music is the universal language.