Alan Doyle

Alan Doyle

Great Big Sea show a Celtic celebration

A cold corner of the Prairies unofficially became a rollicking part of The Rock, when Great Big Sea performed a celebratory Celtic-flavoured concert at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.

A cold corner of the Prairies unofficially became a rollicking part of The Rock, when Great Big Sea performed a celebratory Celtic-flavoured concert at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre.

“Sounds more like a Friday night than a Monday night, hey Red Deer?” said lead singer Alan Doyle to a full-house crowd of about 700 people — everyone from children to seniors. Judging by the responding whoops and cheers, many transplanted East Coasters were undoubtedly part of the enthusiastic, party-hardy throng.

If these Red Deer-area residents were starved for hearty Atlantic musical fare, then the boisterous Newfoundland-based band was only too happy to serve up foot-stomping sounds from home.

Great Big Sea turned the Memorial Centre into something akin to a lively bar on St. John’s George Street by launching into some greatest hits and some recognizable standards: Fans leapt to their feet for Ordinary Day, followed by a clap-along version of Donkey Riding, done a cappella style to the beat of an Irish drum, and the infectious When I’m Up (I Can’t Get Down).

The group’s bodhran, guitar and tin whistle player, Séan McCann, showed off strong vocals on The Night Pat Murphy Died, about exuberant Irish wakes. “Some of the boys got loaded drunk and they ain’t been sober yet!” sang McCann, as fellow band member Bob Hallett, (also a guitarist, tin whistler and fiddler) accompanied him on the squeeze box.

The band, on its 20th anniversary tour, launched into Heart of Hearts, with the lyrics, “I drove a million miles with you, I broke a million smiles with you … in my heart of hearts, I’d do it all again!” It was clearly a love song to the audience, made more apparent by the hearts suddenly appearing on a video screen behind the band.

The screen was framed by two large, neon-lit Xs, standing for XX, the title of Great Big Sea’s current greatest hits album.

Looking over the sea of fans’ faces, Doyle declared, “Sold out to the doors! Red Deer was the first concert to sell out on the whole tour.”

McCann joked that he’s always liked Red Deer as it’s Rudolph’s the Red Nosed Reindeer’s hometown, “And he’s Santa’s freakin’ favourite!”

After the two musicians somehow segued to the topic of naughty films shown on Petty Harbour’s first French-Canadian TV channel, and how a third X in the band’s album title would have led it to be stocked in adult video stores, Doyle decided “I feel we should sing something more wholesome now.”

A Boat like Gideon Brown proved just the ticket, with its happy flute solo.

The gifted band members played two sets with an intermission, pulling off great covers of Pete Townshend’s Let My Love Open the Door and Slade’s Run Runaway. Great Big Sea also performed the hit Consequence Free, When I am King, Goin’ Up, and the comical tunes Scolding Wife and Helmethead, about hockey.

As well there were Lukey, Penelope and a poignant acoustic version of Nothing But a Song.

Even more memorable was the haunting The River Driver’s Lament that started with just Doyle’s voice, but gradually included four-part harmony, thanks to Hallett, McCann and bassist Murray Foster. Drummer Kris Macfarlane kept the beat on the bodhran.

Safe Upon the Shore, a ballad that advises never asking favours from the heartless sea, was another shiver-inducing tune.

Additional powerful moments were provided by McCann’s performance of Far from the Shores of England — a tribute to the brave souls who sailed off into the unknown on wooden ships, and Doyle’s Yankee Sailor, about a poor Newfoundland lad whose girlfriend took up with a U.S. sailor stationed on a naval base on the island.

Fans warmed up to the band’s rousing performance of early hit Wadd’ya At, which was used for a 1990s Newfoundland phone commercial that was shown on the concert’s video scene. Doyle later quipped, “For all you young people out there, those big boxes are telephones. One call at a time was all they were good for.”

But perhaps the evening’s biggest real crowd-pleaser was Hallett’s spirited version of Come and I Will Sing You, a call and response tune involving audience participation.

The largely upbeat concert that left fans standing, cheering and dancing wound to a regretful close with Old Black Rum and Live This Life — about appreciating every minute of our sad, happy, complicated lives.

“I’m grateful for this evening,” said Doyle to his fervent followers. A fan shouted back, “Many more years!”

Hopefully not too many more, though, before Great Big Sea returns to reindeer, I mean, Red Deer.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com