"I hope I don't get a god complex standing up here," Alan Doyle proclaimed on Wednesday night from City Winery's raised stage. Anyone familiar with Alan's work knows this just isn't possible -- despite his many successes, the musician-actor-producer-author and frontman of iconic Canadian band Great Big Sea remains as humble as the day is long. But I had never seen the genial maestro so completely in charge of his own power as during this show.
City Winery marked only one stop on the So Let's Go tour, which celebrates the release of Alan's second solo album (his first, Boy on Bridge, came out in 2012), but it might just be the most epic. The evening's chosen songs reflected the artist's constant globetrotting in a collective travelogue of sorts: Great Big Sea standards mingled with newer material composed in Hollywood, Nashville, Ireland and Australia. And in between, Alan never let an opportunity to thrill slip by, instead conjuring up anecdotes so sensuously detailed that the whole room was held spellbound. These behind-the-music tales ranged from the lighthearted "Dance Dance," about high school proms in the small town of Petty Harbour, to "Laying Down to Perish," inspired by the tragedy of four 19th-century mariners from Fogo Island who were lost on the ice. (The latter, though superbly recorded on the So Let's Go album, packs an extra punch when sung live and almost brought me to tears.) Flying high on the powerhouse tunes, audience adoration, and quality time with his buddies -- not to mention a commemorative Cabernet with his picture on the label -- Mr. Doyle spent the night in triumphant form.
That "quality time" played a major factor in the evening's entertainment. Alan might have been the headliner here, but in good Newfoundlander tradition there's nothing truly solo about either the So Let's Go record (which includes tracks co-written with composers like Gordie Sampson and Thomas "Tawgs" Salter) or the tour, where Doyle serves as ringleader to a circus of colorful characters dubbed The Beautiful Gypsies.
Those spirited sorcerers certainly earned their moniker within City Winery's rustic-chic walls, transporting listeners to some mythical sonic place for two electrifying full sets. All five performers seemed exactly in sync with Alan as they managed a waltz in one number and a mock square dance in another, never letting go of their instruments or missing a beat for a second. Violinist Kendel Carson, whose work has always stunned me, brought new depth to the Great Big Sea favorite "When I'm Up" with her fiery fiddle-playing; later, she and guitarist Cory Tetford shared a gorgeous duet in "Shine On," both unleashing vibrant voices that cause one to wonder when they might record a single together. Todd Lumley on keyboard and accordion lent several songs a homespun touch, making the cavernous venue suddenly as intimate as a Newfoundland kitchen party. Kris Macfarlane on drums and Shehab Illyas on bass were among the night's unsung heroes, providing powerful undercurrents to the music that hit listeners straight in the heart. Their blend of humor, virtuosity, and pure enthusiasm should be studied by all bands who want to show their fans a swinging time.
Surprise and not-so-surprise guests abounded to up the pleasure ante. It was a poorly kept secret that actor-musician Scott Grimes (Justified, American Dad!) would be onboard for the festivities, and the redhead of unparalleled voice did not disappoint. Together he and best friend Alan rocked the house with their co-write "I'm Goin' Home," a moving tribute to those affected by the Boston Marathon. And in one of the gig's particular highlights, the two master showmen dueted again to cover Billy Joel's "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." (For further proof that Scott is like Billy Joel with an Irish twist, listen to his song "Around and Around.") While I was hoping the pair might add some of their other co-writes to the setlist such as "Stay," a poignant tune from So Let's Go, just watching Scott and Alan's obvious joy in playing together was several concerts' worth of uplifting.
Less publicized but utterly enthralling were the two guest artists who sang their own co-writes with Doyle: Irish musician Owen O'Suilleabhain, who performed a lyrically delicious ode to his and Alan's heritage called "Irish Hearts are Hard to Break," and actor Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, A Most Violent Year), who charmed the assembly with "Never Had," his theme from the movie 10 Years.
"It's not a good concert," Alan often says, "unless something happens that's unique to that night." While these guys will all gather together for some melodic magic again, their friendship will never be captured for the public in that exact spectacular yet very personal way as in that moment.
Fans had been primed for an excellent show -- the happiness that ensues whenever Alan takes the stage is legion -- but City Winery reached another level of awesome. Couple already-stirring music with the visual of artists rapidly switching exotic instruments at the drop of a hat (Hello mandolin! Hello bouzouki!), add a little impossibility, and you might have a good idea of what went down. For when The Beautiful Gypsies worked their mojo, they inspired audiences to bounce to the beat despite the venue's rather mobility-prohibitive layout. (Any bruises I took home from knocking into chairs while dancing were welcome souvenirs of an enchanted evening.)
Actually, the entire concert felt very akin to the "Indoor Garden Parties" that Alan usually hosts with his friend and frequent collaborator Russell Crowe. These star-studded events revolve around songs and stories that allow every ensemble member a chance to shine, and the performances blow spectators away while simultaneously uniting us all, even for an instant, by the undeniable powers of music and camaraderie. I'd say the Gladiator's larger-than-life personality and penchant for surprises is rubbing off on Alan, but the genuine passion for pleasing others is totally innate to the Newfoundlander. He'll never develop a god complex -- to Alan Doyle, the spotlight is always better shared by a crowd -- but the devotion is well deserved. Hey, when every inch of a major New York venue's 21,000 square feet is filled with people jumping, stamping their feet, screaming, "Amen! Hallelujah!" and wildly applauding each lyric, you know you're in the presence of something divine.
For more about Alan's adventures, go here, and look out for his song "The Night Loves Us" on your local radio station.