Few bands are as evocative of time travel as Great Big Sea (GBS), so it's fitting that the final leg of the group's twentieth anniversary XX tour should include a stop in the historic heart of Tarrytown, New York. On Friday night the lads from Newfoundland rolled in for a concert that roused Washington Irving's legendary hollow from its sleepy state, good vibrations pulsating through the sturdy old walls of the Tarrytown Music Hall.
Alan Doyle, Sean McCann, and Bob Hallett have been making sweet music together ever since GBS' initial formation in 1993. (Fourth founding member Darrell Power left in 2003, while bassist Murray Foster and drummer Kris MacFarlane have become integral additions to the band.) XX allows fans a melodic retrospective of every high point and grand adventure taken over the past two decades, commemorating mix of the Celtic-infused traditional ballads and poignant originals unique to the GBS oeuvre. And on the heels of Sean's recent announcement that this tour with the b'ys (Newfoundland slang meaning friends) will be his last, the show in Tarrytown was, among other elements, true nostalgia at its finest.
Situated in the middle of a quaint, peaceful Main Street dotted with Colonial-style houses, the Music Hall itself transports visitors back in time. Its marquee emblazoned with old-fashioned lights, its 900-seat theatre decorated with black-and-white silhouettes, the venue is reminiscent of a 1930s movie palace -- that carefully preserved space where magic happened within and for two hours the outside world ceased to exist.
Friday's crowd was more than happy to inhabit this magical space. Even before the first beats of GBS hallmark "Ordinary Day" came over the speakers, people leapt to their feet and remained energetically upright throughout both of the band's full sets. While GBS typically encourages dancing, sing-alongs, and various other forms of audience participation at gigs, there could be seen a hazy adoration mingling with dedicated determination in the eyes of this fun-loving assembly. From the couple waltzing in tender romance during "Yankee Sailor," to the woman bouncing in uncontainable glee to every chorus of "Goin' Up," to the boisterous young men who rushed the stage halfway through the second set, voices cheering lustily as if at some divine sporting match, it's clear these folks came ready to feast on good music. Boy, did they get a banquet.
The evening's songs covered a wide range of GBS and Newfoundland history, exploring early hits like "Run Runaway" and "What Are Ya At?" (complete with footage from the band's early-90s telephone commercial), fan favorites such as "When I Am King" and "Everything Shines," and newer fare including "Heart of Hearts" and "Live This Life." Sepia-toned film clips of old games accompanied the hockey ode "Helmet Head," while Bob Hallett's call-and-response tune "Come and I Will Sing You" gave everyone a taste of Christmastime by the harbor. Appropriate to the Sleepy Hollow setting, a slightly macabre touch pervaded the more traditional selections -- although where else besides a GBS concert could one hope to hear more joyful tributes to the dangerous conditions at a process plant ("The Chemical Worker's Song"), merciless seal-clubbing ("Ferryland Sealer"), or exhuming an animal's dead body ("Concerning Charlie Horse")?
It's worth noting that, enthusiastic as the proceedings were, they also carried a peculiar gravity. Perhaps this had to do with nostalgia's more serious side, the wish to honor what's gone before and the realization that all things cannot stay the same forever. To that end the night became a great showcase for Sean McCann, whose beautiful solo parts on "Captain Wedderburn" and "Safe Upon the Shore" provided some of the gig's best highlights. Hard to imagine what will happen to the band without his jovial sensitivity and puckish humor. (Watching the guys impulsively play off each other is another gift of GBS shows; quite unexpectedly they launched twice into Simon and Garfunkel tunes, "Slip Slidin' Away" in the first set and "The 59th Street Bridge Song" in the second. If only Alan had had time to finish "The Sound of Silence," of which he jokingly sang the first line.)
But if the performance paid some particular homage to Sean, it certainly gleaned beautiful moments from each individual band member. Throbbing syncopated rhythms on the percussion-heavy songs, especially "Beat the Drum," spotlighted Kris and Murray's awesome instrumental prowess. Bob's exuberant fiddle solo during "When I'm Up (I Can't Get Down)" seemed even livelier and more invigorating than in its original windblown recording. And never, in the many occasions I've listened to and enjoyed his renditions of them, had I heard Alan imbue "The River Driver" and "Sea of No Cares" with such soulful, emotive depth as he did here.
There is a mural in the Tarrytown Music Hall just above its proscenium stage, painted in the lush blues and greens of eighteenth-century storybooks. In Washington Irving's era, an image merging blue and green indicated the miraculous point where dreams and reality became one, often taking place near a mystical body of water. And so the tale goes again, hundreds of years later, as musicians who were born on Newfoundland's shores share their talents with Hudson Valley inhabitants, atop the hill overlooking that otherworldly river, to make their fantasies come true for awhile and reminisce about the past 20 years that have comprised their own realities. Cheers to the gentlemen of Great Big Sea. Sometimes the destination really does celebrate the journey.