For 20 years, iconic Canadian band Great Big Sea (GBS) has wielded a magical, musical double-edged sword, creating memories that last forever -- and gorgeous moments crackling and ephemeral as a fever dream. When Newfoundland's favorite sons bring their exuberance to New York, a city satiated with the same elusive quality of simultaneous permanence and impermanence, it is a match made in heaven.
New York's venerable Town Hall theater came alive this weekend with the buzz of a thousand accents. GBS always attracts an international audience, and the most recent stop on their XX twentieth anniversary tour was no exception: Americans, Canadians, Germans, and Irishmen among others commingled happily to celebrate the group's milestone year.
Since 1993, Alan Doyle, Sean McCann, and Bob Hallett have shared their distinctive blend of Celtic rock and Newfoundland pop with the wide world, though in spirit they remain loyal to the pub culture from whence they came. Whether playing centuries-old folk songs or original tunes, they buccaneer into gigs ready for one hell of a good time. And boy, do they deliver.
Joined by Murray Foster on bass and Kris Macfarlane on drums, the lads were in fine fettle as Town Hall rang with their greatest hits. Kicking off the action with rousing fan favorite "Ordinary Day," GBS kept the energy high and maintained a splendidly kinetic momentum through the evening's dual full sets. Traditional selections like "Lukey's Boat," "Scolding Wife," and "The Night Pat Murphy Died" dotted the night's tapestry alongside contemporary fare including "Love Me Tonight," "Consequence Free," and their newest single "Heart of Hearts," a fitting tribute to the group's rollicking two decades ("In my heart of hearts I'd do it all again").
In no uncertain terms, GBS shows guarantee a workout; audience members are always encouraged to clap, dance, and sing along in the hearty Newfie manner (see Bob Hallett's specialty, the call-and-response number "Come and I Will Sing You"). Still, even by New York standards of perpetual motion, the assembly achieved some epic rocking. Up on its feet from the very first note, the crowd boisterously bounced for three hours straight, euphoria and adrenaline lending the glorious feel of a superhuman experience. It was generosity at its finest, par for the course with GBS -- they give their all onstage, so you'd better bring it in the house.
The affection flows so strongly between musicians and fans that a GBS concert tends to resemble a strange sort of family reunion. Whole clans, from grandparents to elementary-school children, shout the words to beloved ditties; during intermission people leave their seats to embrace fellow devotees who they've encountered at such joyful events before. And when Alan addresses the congregation as "brothers and sisters," you realize we are indeed entered into that all-encompassing brotherhood of man.
Like the best family reunions, GBS' XX would not be complete without a few home movies. Clips from old videos accompanied the live performances, producing a snapshot-like effect to underscore the band's impressive journey from adventurous boys to seasoned musicians. Laughter rippled through the auditorium when the group's telephone commercial from the early nineties flickered onscreen as an intro to "What Are Ya At?" Even the song "Good People" featured a background photographic montage of cheerful fans and friends.
The show's quieter moments also conveyed a tremendous emotional impact. Both Alan and Sean wax poetic about their love for the Big Apple, with Sean stating how much he likes to sing something specific to New York every time he's in the city. This segued into one of the most gorgeous renditions of John Lennon's "Imagine" I'd ever heard. Later, a poignant and serendipitous moment occurred during the number "Yankee Sailor," when a woman in the back row yelled out, "They got the guy in Boston!" perfectly timed to the end of the song's refrain: "America is beautiful tonight."
What's truly beautiful is GBS' commitment to a universally human entertainment in their art. Their music may be flavored with the particular legends of Newfoundland and tinged with Irish humor, but the heart and soul they pour into their efforts touch people from every nation. Under their spell, we gather together to become part of something much larger than ourselves, linked by melodies and memories that survive the test of time. They are still the boys who played the pubs, but there's sorcery in their simplicity. Here's to 20 years of riding the waves with Great Big Sea... and a wish for many more.