Funny thing with some hit-making Canadian rock acts: They might be wildly successful in their home country, but mass acceptance in the U.S. market continues to elude many of them.
Which, in the case of Great Big Sea, is to the disadvantage of American listeners. This excellent, 11-year-old band mixes elements of traditional Celtic music from their native Newfoundland with sublime progressive pop-rock melodies and a brawny, energetic attack.
On the road to support its seventh album, the recently released Something Beautiful, Great Big Sea drops into to Tucson for a gig Monday night, May 10, at Plush.
Great Big Sea is part of a burgeoning musical movement--including such sympathetic acts as the Young Dubliners and Seven Nations--that has haphazardly been dubbed "Celtic punk," which is kind of misleading.
Certainly, the aggression of punk rock is the last thing you think when hearing Something Beautiful. The band's catchy power pop benefits from sweet, melancholic melodies of Scottish and Irish origin, and in their rocking arrangements, band members incorporate traditional British folk instruments such as mandolin, bodhran, tin whistles, pipes, accordion and concertina.
But the music sounds, to these ears, more like The Pogues, only with manners and melodies, or like an acoustic U2, less the strident polemics. Or maybe like the raucous NYC band Black 47 without the anger and the Irish-American attitude.
The music of Great Big Sea sounds glorious, proud, pretty and healthy. It's a rich and rewarding experience for listeners. The Washington Post, in 2002, described the band's work as "an explosively joyful noise that is bright and melodic, passionate and heartfelt and keeps to the down home spirit of the 'kitchen parties' in which the band began."
Great Big Sea singer-songwriter Allan Doyle, with whom I played phone tag last weekend, has said that his band and the traditional music of Newfoundland share a reliance on the archetypal storytelling of the region. But he also likes to write personally revealing songs.
"Some of my favorite songs are those that ... tell the listener something about the singer and the songwriter. I really think the more honest you are in a song, the better it becomes. So this record (Something Beautiful) is a like a mix of those two approaches. It has the most honest songs I've ever written."
The band's Tucson concert, by the way, is a labor of love for first-time promoter Shannon Fennie, a married mother of three and nurse at Tucson Medical Center who also happens to be a passionate fan of Great Big Sea. She heard they were on tour, and decided to bring them to Tucson.
Fennie said she knows that, considering the ticket price she's charging, even a full house at Plush on Monday will find her falling just short of breaking even on the show. She said she's OK with that, as long as promoting the show doesn't cost her any more than the amount it would have cost her and her husband to fly to San Diego, the closest town outside of Tucson that Great Big Sea is playing on this tour.