Foot-Stomping Canadian Rock
When Great Big Sea takes the stage, none of the world’s problems seem to matter any more. Which is important and impressive, because Great Big Sea is from the province of Newfoundland in Canada. Newfoundland is an island off the East Coast, famous to the rest of the world mostly for being cold and far from anywhere else. The economy of the entire region is in shambles and about a third of the population is unemployed. Great Big Sea serves as the unofficial symbol of Newfoundland to those who know little or nothing about the province, and prove conclusively that music, company and beer are all that’s necessary for a rocking good time.
Wrapping around the block, the mainly nine-to-five, thirty-something crowd entered Avalon to the Phish-meets-Blind Melon-meets-the Pogues sound of opening band Carbon Leaf. Carbon Leaf are the only unsigned band ever to perform at the American Music Awards, where they won an award for Best New Music, beating out some 1,000 other bands. Featuring among other things a mandolin and several tin whistles, the group is obviously influenced by Great Big Sea and they were a fitting and exhilerating opening band, whetting the crowd’s appetite. By the time lead singer Barry Privett broke out the bagpipes towards the end of their gig, the sold-out Avalon crowd was delirious.
“Tonight we are going to show absolutely no restraint whatsoever! None!” exclaimed Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle as the band took the stage. Doyle remained true to his word. While Great Big Sea’s studio recordings are popular especially in Canada, the foursome has always been best known for their live performances. Last Saturday was no exception. From the first few chords of their opening song “Ordinary Day” to their final song, “Rant and Roar,” which concluded their third encore, the band and crowd’s energy had Avalon throbbing and pumping.
Great Big Sea has a fiercely loyal fan base. With people jumping up and down so much that the floor shook and every person singing every line from every song, it was clear that Great Big Sea does not place its stock in the casual fan, but in the devoted diehard. The number of Newfoundland flags being waved in the crowd reflected the fact that Great Big Sea is possibly the most popular band in eastern Canada. The crowd must have been at leastd three quarters Canadian, with locals in a definite minority.
Great Big Sea’s signature live song is “Mary Mac,” a traditional tune that the band has practically made their own. Their performance of the staple at Avalon made clear why this is so. The song started out slowly, practically inaudible over the roars of an adoring, drunken crowd. As the song picked up, both the crowd and the band began to get more and more frenzied, repeating the tongue-twisting chorus “Mary Mac’s mother’s making Mary Mac marry me/ My mother’s making me marry Mary Mac!” over and over again. As the crowd struggled to keep up with the ever quickening pace of the lyrics, singer Sean McCann began to scream into the mic, staggering around the stage. He eventually ended up on the floor, out of breath and red in the face. The crowd was practically orgasmic.
Great Big Sea’s music is an interesting mix of many styles. Generally lumped under the blanket term “celtic-rock,” the group draws heavily on their Irish/Scottish backgrounds. The traditional music of Newfoundland is rooted in Irish music. Great Big Sea is famous for is the way that they take traditional Newfoundland songs, such as “Mary Mac” and “The Night That Patty Murphy Died”, and turn them into rock tracks that have a far more universal appeal. Maybe the only band ever to go platinum that features both bouzouki and bodhran players, their music is unique to say the least.
The half-million people who live in Newfoundland have to deal with all sorts of problems—unemployment, population decrease, and the loss of their traditional culture, to name a few. Yet whenever you go to a Great Big Sea gig, the only things that really matter are where the beer guy is, and what song you get to sing along to next.