This is Great Big Sea’s 20th anniversary tour – they had their first gig in 1993 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It took about a year or two for their music to permeate to Toronto, the centre of the universe, where I lived at the time. But they were different. Their music was positively infectious. I got caught up with it all and made some cracking good friends along the way. Together, we toured our corner of Canada and northern NY state, even driving as far west as Chicago on more than one occasion, drove as far east as Long Island, as far south as Baltimore, Maryland (that view across Chesapeake Bay was unforgettable), but took the train to get to a Great Big Picnic in Charlottetown and drove the rest of the way to Halifax for the next one. Until I moved to Vancouver in 2002, when this band was touring, it was a HUGE part of how I spent my summer holidays, weekends, and some really short nights (as far as sleeping was concerned) driving across the border and back. In the same sense that you can never go ‘home’ again, you can never go back. Not really. And this is essentially what tonight taught me.
The backdrop of the stage was the two Roman numerals for 20 and the space between the X’s were used to display different images or film. The first thing shown was a retrospective of the band’s beginnings to the soundtrack of “Great Big Sea” – the first song from the self-titled first release. Crowd reaction to the Morse code of “Ordinary Day” as the band came on stage was something akin to pandemonium. This was the kind of applause you usually hear after a job well done, and this was how Great Big Sea was greeted at the Orpheum on Sunday, March 10.
Setlist *Set 1: Ordinary Day Billy Peddle (with the lovely and long instrumental introduction) Captain Kidd Heart of Hearts Goin’ Up England Concerning Charlie Horse What Are Ya’ At? (or phonetically: whaddya at) The River Driver The Mermaid Beat the Drum Alan said this song was for the next record. Lyrics included “There’s no place underneath the stars I would rather be” and “we’re all here where we belong”. If someone has a title, please advise. Lukey
*Set 2 Let my love open the door Love me tonight The Night Pat Murphy died (a.k.a. Paddy Murphy) When I am King When I’m Up Good People Scolding Wife Let it Go Hockey Song (partial, in tribute to the recent passing of Canadian legend “Stompin’” Tom Connors) Helmethead Consequence Free Mari-Mac Run Runaway
1st encore Forever Light Will Shine (Paul Hyde cover) Excursion Around the Bay followed by a set of jigs and Fortune
2nd encore Live this Life The Old Black Rum Rant & Roar (abbreviated and a capella)
This was pretty much an all-ages crowd in the Orpheum and it looked like a sell-out right up to the back of the balcony. The first set began at 7:35 pm and went to 8:40 pm. The second set went from 9 pm through 9:55 pm. Six songs comprised the encores (three and three). A tired and happy band retired for the evening at 10:20ish pm. I went home singing “Rant & Roar” under my breath. I was sorry to not have heard “General Taylor” – one line in it, if Sean ‘went for it’, always gave me chills, but, with so many songs to choose from to make a setlist every night, I don’t think I’m alone in not having heard my personal favourite, but all in all, it was a good mix of old and newer (to qualify, in my very subjective books, everything from Sea of No Cares and later is ‘new’). Alan and Sean could still do a comedy segment with their banter alone,
Notes and Observations (from my seat in the house right balcony):
People in the balcony sat for “Heart of Hearts”. It featured Sean on guitar and “Bobby on the squeezebox” but no visual aids between the XX set.
To introduce “Goin’ Up” Alan thought it pertinent to mention they were “without professional obligations” tomorrow, so were encouraged to leave it all on the stage. During the first verse or two, Murray and Sean ganged up on Alan blowing in his ear trying to make him lose it. He didn’t and managed to soldier on.
There was some reminiscing about their first gig in Vancouver at the Town Pump. They opened for a band called She Stole My Beer and it’s an unforgettable name to him. And apparently, the Pump had a low ceiling as well as a music appreciating rat, so that was the first thing whoever was standing centre stage would see when looking at the audience. Fact or fiction? With Alan Doyle, it’s always a bit of a crap shoot.
“England” – Murray joining Alan with guitar, nice whistle interlude from Bob.
Chat about how Vancouver has such a coffee culture. Sean though his heart pounding a bit stronger and faster than usual thanks to a triple venti something (from Café Artigiano (I like the place too – but mine is always a Spanish Latte. Delish, but I digress). And then they were trying to think of something else Vancouver was famous for. Puzzled humoured looks. Deep inhale. Wink.
“Concerning Charlie Horse” had Bob on fiddle and Sean on guitar.
“What are ya’ at?” was introduced via the Newfoundland telephone company commercial that got their names ‘out there’ when they were first starting out.
The Central Newfoundland song “The River Driver” was a capella but for Sean playing bodhran. That scaled-down sound just amplifies the different textures the man can bring into song interpretations and the multi-part harmony for the chorus sounds so full and rich.
“The Mermaid” continued with Sean on vocals as well as tambourine, Bob was on button accordion.
For “Beat the Drum” the balcony audience got back on its feet, at least those to the left of me. House right balcony people were comfy enough, thank you. Bob was on bouzouki and Sean bodhran.
The next song is one I didn’t know. Alan said it was for the next record if I heard him correctly. If it helps, Bob played banjo as well as harmonica (via head-gear) for it and Sean starts out on guitar and switches to tambourine. There’s an invitation to clap along for the lyric “we’re all here where we belong”. Suggestions welcome.
“Lukey” – shocked that I still remember the lyrics. They’re not terribly difficult, but if you haven’t had occasion to utter the words in over 6 years…; GBS, you’ve taught me well. Sean on bodhran and shaker, Bob on button accordion.
For the second set, Sean at least had made a costume change: looking less like a Jehovah’s Witness without the tie and suit jacket and more “let’s have a fun show” with an untucked shirt (I know, the things I notice, eh?). “Let My Love Open The Door” had Bob on button accordion and whistle for the bridge and Sean on guitar.
“Love Me Tonight” has that lovely whistle to accompany the verses (Bob switches to bouzouki for the chorus). Musical detour to “I’ve Got A Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas in between and it works; surprised to come to the realisation that “Love Me Tonight” sounds quite mainstream, less surprised that it works. This ain’t Great Big Sea’s first time at the proverbial rodeo.
“Paddy Murphy” – what can I say? The audience was back on its feet in a hurry, everyone I saw on the balcony knew the words (even to the verses). Fun.
“When I Am King” – the music video for it played in the background. As upbeat a number as it is, it wasn’t enough to keep my side of the balcony standing. For this one, Alan switched to electric guitar, Sean manned the acoustic, Bob on the bouzouki.
“Safe Upon The Shore”, written by Murray Foster (way to go, Murray!) was sung a capella with Sean taking the lead for verses and multi-part harmony from the others.
“When I’m Up” had a few solos: Bob on the fiddle and the audience for the first half of the last chorus. Good audience participation.
“Good People” showed the results of the Good People Project – photos sent in by the fanbase were shown on the screen. Lots of happy smiley couples. Is this a “date night” band or what? Alan plays banjo for the song.
“Scolding Wife” – Kris comes out to play – accordion! Sean alternates between bodhran and shakers. Bob on button accordion. Everyone but Kris has a solo verse for the song.
Instrumentation for “Let It Go” is Bob back on bouzouki and Sean’s on the guitar.
The first verse and chorus of Stompin’ Tom Connors’s “Hockey Song” played in tribute to the passing of “a Canadian legend”, in Alan’s words. Most of the balcony got up to sing along. They elected not to stay up for “Helmethead”, sung by Bob (the one who used to MAYBE, on OCCASION, be persuaded to sing “Blister In The Sun” as an encore. – I’ve only ever heard it once and I’ve been to A LOT of GBS shows in my time. He’s obviously gotten over it.). Sean is on guitar for it, Bob accompanies himself on button accordion. Classic hockey footage is shown in the background.
“Consequence Free” – the balcony is up on their feet again. For a song that’s about letting one’s hair down it’s remarkably restrained.
“Mari-Mac” – always a favourite. The video for it played in the background and Sean timed it perfectly so it ended exactly the same time as the head drop at the end of the end of the video. Again, not their first time at the rodeo, but it was cool enough that I noticed.
“Run Runaway” – video played in the background, Sean was on whistle, Bob on fiddle. Audience got to sing one of the choruses – full crowd participation for it and the crowd stayed on its feet to cheer for the encore after the band left the stage.
Staggered encore: first song was Alan and Sean. Sean introduced it as a song from Paul Hyde’s “Big Book of Sad Songs” called “Forever Light Will Shine”. Sean does lead vocals and accompanies himself on the guitar, Alan takes lead vocal after the bridge, he plays bouzouki for the song. These two have such complimentary voices – it’s a treat to hear them showcased. Don’t get me wrong, when the other band members sing, it doesn’t take away from them, it only adds. My point is that simpler sounds have their virtues and should never lose their place. This band can do complex and they can do simple and they can make it all sound effortless.
“Excursion Around The Bay” – a capella with Sean on the bodhran. Audience get a chorus (or was it two?) by themselves with fists up for the “hey”. The song finishes with a jig set – Kris had got himself ready with accordion during excursion to back Bob up as he starts out with fiddle and then switches to button accordion when Kris goes back to the drums. Now that’s teamwork! Sean has an easier task, shakers. The jigs segue into “Fortune” and that concludes the first encore.
Between the first and second encores the first people started to depart the balcony. They missed a good encore if all they were trying to do was beat Sunday night traffic (what Sunday night traffic?). Encore #2 starts off after less than a minute’s wait with Sean singing lead vocals for “Live this Life” and Alan and Bob each playing bouzouki at full volume. The ‘boys’ only do harmony for this one (in other words, Alan and Sean aren’t switching off to take turns on lead vocals).
Alan does a little diddy on Vancouver (not foolish enough to think that was 100% improvised) with him playing the guitar oddly reminiscent of “Heart & Soul”. Thank yous to the crew at this point, and individual band introductions – how do you take a bow while you’re playing the guitar? If you’re Sean McCann, you get down on your knees first, take the bow and get back up again – without missing a beat.
“The Old Black Rum” – Alan and Sean – 2 guitars, going full on accompanied only by bouzouki and drums. It’s a wonder they still have strength in their fingers, never mind the voices.
The night winds down with a verse and chorus of Rant & Roar, the band downstage centre, side by each, singing completely a capella. I admit it, my eyes were wet. Outside, I heard people talking about it, obviously noobs, and that’s okay. This has always been a band about sharing the music, sharing experiences and stories, sharing the joy. You can never go home, you can only go forward, and cherish the memories. The noobs now have memories too. Welcome to the club.