The Archives | Ambassadors of Song

Story first published Dec. 4, 2004 | by Carolyn Stokes

What do you get when 8,000 screaming fans and one Herald reporter show up to watch a Great Big Sea concert in Ottawa? A show to remember.

It’s loud. It’s like thousands of screaming people are competing with each other to see who can be the most rambunctious. Lights flash in every direction. A nearby middle-aged woman looks practically delirious. She’s flailing her arms and body like a woman possessed. She is but one in the crazed, frenzied mass all around.
Good Lord, what’s happening? Where am I again? Where did all these people come from?
It’s as though the building is having a seizure … the floor is shaking, the seats are rattling, my balance is faltering – any minute now the whole thing will come crashing down and rescuers will find this, my final words, scratched on the notepad with an unsteady hand, a hand that skips across the page like the skidding needle of a record player atop a misaligned washing machine during spin cycle. Yup, this is it.
Any second this boat is going to capsize, any minute now. One eye opens, then the other. Minutes passed, hours lapsed and no disaster. My hand will live to write another day, but can someone please explain what the heck happened?
I thought I was going to watch Great Big Sea perform a nice little show for some ex-pat Newfoundland and Labradorians at the Civic Centre in Ottawa. I thought I was simply getting a sneak peek into the same concert that’s jet streaming across Canada destined for Mile One Stadium in St. John’s on Dec. 4 – a tour which also includes up-and-comer Liam Titcomb and The Jimmy Rankin Band as guests.

I figured, hey, what a great chance to see how the province’s so-called “ambassadors” present themselves off the island and find out how a mainland audience – who, for the most part, only gets a whiff of salt water air after an hour spent on the Stairmaster – reacts to a slew of east coast sea shanties and tin whistle ditties. What I didn’t expect was for the auditorium floor to turn into a box-spring mattress as the multitudes jumped like they were trying to touch the ceiling. I didn’t anticipate accordion Armageddon, bodhran bedlam, mandolin pandemonium and Celtic chaos.
“Does the floor always shake like this?” I asked the five-foot tall pizza girl at the concession stand.
“No, not really,” she responded as she steadied herself on the countertop. “It only happens when everybody is jumping at once.”
Anyone who has watched more than one Great Big Sea performance knows that “surprising” isn’t an adjective which best describes a typical show. Indeed, I wouldn’t call the show surprising – absolutely shocking is much more apt.

But it wasn’t the show itself that was so astounding; it was the audience that delivered a memorable performance. Surely the 8,000-member audience wasn’t composed of all Newfoundland and Labradorians; even if it was, I’ve never seen a hometown audience get this excited about a Great Big Sea concert. Even though GBS frontman Alan Doyle repeatedly referred to the audience as his “brothers and sisters” that doesn’t mean they were all relatives, does it?
No, of course not. Petty Harbour, Doyle’s hometown, doesn’t even have a population that big, does it? Didn’t think so.
Four teenaged girls in the row behind me continuously screamed that high-pitched shriek usually reserved for the Justins and Ushers of superstardom. The girls sang all the words to all the songs at the top of their lungs and were so enthralled by it all I had to ask:
“Are you guys from Newfoundland?”
A look of confusion came over one of their faces, “Um, no, we’re from Ottawa.”
Whoa. Great Big Sea – whose members include Doyle, Sean McCann and Bob Hallett (ex-Moxy Fruvous bassist Murray Foster and drummer Kris MacFarlane have also recently been added to the group) – put Newfoundland music on the map 12 years ago.
While some critics describe the group as predictable, they’ve been nothing if not consistent in their success.
They’re the kind of guys everyone wants to invite to their party. They recently released their seventh gold album in a row, Something Beautiful. Their last release, Sea of No Cares, garnered the group five East Coast Music Awards for Album of the Year, Group of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, Video of the Year and Pop Artist of the Year.
Liam Titcomb, a 17-year-old singer-songwriter from Toronto, and The Jimmy Rankin Band opened the show, but judging from the audience’s somewhat blasé reaction, those performers were just the spark making its way up the dynamite fuse – everyone watched in anticipation of the blast to come.
“We’re Great Big Sea from Newfoundland,” Doyle yelled into the microphone after the first few tunes of their 25-song set.
Granted, Great Big Sea had an advantage – the overall weekend vibe was working in their favour. It was, after all, the Canadian Football League’s annual Grey Cup weekend in Ottawa between the BC Lions and the Toronto Argonauts (the Argos won).
Sports fans from all over the country piled into the city to catch the game of the year and all psyched up for some hard core partying. That weekend, you were either a Lion or an Argonaut or, as I discovered, a Newfoundlander.
It all began in the airport. Travelers were greeted at the arrivals gate like vacationers are greeted in Hawaii. Instead of receiving one of those leis around their necks, all travelers were given a mini-Canadian flag and a hearty “Welcome to Ottawa and the Grey Cup weekend.” A live band – keyboard, saxophone and stand up bass – performed by the baggage area and if you wore a team jersey you received a rowdy cheer from the crowd.
As suitcases made their rounds on the carousel, a few guys in jerseys tossed a football around like they were in a field.
I was picked up at the airport by a friend who had decided to leave the vehicle in a no-parking zone. After collecting my luggage we went out to the vehicle only to find a slip of paper tucked under the windshield wiper.
Darn, a ticket.
But wait, look, it’s not a ticket. It’s a warning.
A warning? They actually give those out at airports?
Wearing his reflector vest and holding his notepad, the officer who wrote the ticket sauntered past the open driver’s side window with a grin, “It’s a little love note for you.”
Huh? Is that a sense of humour I detect?
We had to ask: “Would we have gotten a ticket if it weren’t Grey Cup weekend?”
“Normally,” said the officer, “you’d get a $50 ticket and your vehicle towed.”
So that’s the frame of mind most people were in that weekend. Everyone in Ottawa seemed ready for a cracking good time – a screaming, stamping, cheering, clapping, air punching, no holds barred parade of fun.
If you looked anyone in the eye on the street you’d see tiny leatherbacks where pupils should be and no matter where you were, every so often, someone would yell “Ar-gos!” like a hiccup they just couldn’t control.
For many the Grey Cup was licence to dress up in ridiculous costumes supporting their team and paint their faces in the spirit of devotion. The football fanaticism trickled into the Great Big Sea concert but there was another team which garnered the same kind of loyalty, not the CFL, but the NFLD.
Looking around the auditorium, Newfoundland and Labrador paraphernalia was everywhere. Mini Newfoundland flags waved over the tops of heads; several guys wore large flags like capes; some “Republic of Newfoundland” T-shirts were spotted and a few homemade signs read “Newfie and proud” (Great Big Sea are usually vocal opposers of the word “Newfie” in the media – they consider it derogatory).
I actually began scanning the crowd for familiar faces. I couldn’t help but think, how many other Canadian bands are so defined by their home province? Would we see the flag of Ontario waving in the crowd at a Tragically Hip concert for instance?
“This is the most people who have ever come to see us in our entire lives,” hollered Doyle, who was obviously feeling the love. “This is the biggest kitchen party in the world.”
The group sang all their hits, even dedicating one song, The Night Paddy Murphy Died, to Charlie Anonsen, owner of the Scademia tour boat in St. John’s harbour, who, according to McCann, was also “on the rum.”
One sure sign of a fabulous concert is avid audience participation. For one song, Doyle asked the crowd to yell “Fare thee well” after a certain cue, and even he seemed shocked at the forceful response. When the crowd bawled out “Fare thee well,” the gust was stronger than opening the front door during a hurricane. I think Doyle even took a step back. At one point he handed the mic over to the crowd (figuratively-speaking, of course) for a sing-a-long medley of the Buggles’ tune Video killed the radio star and Bryan Adams’ Summer of ‘69.
“Our first gig in Ottawa, 65 people showed up to see us at the Newfoundland Pub,” said Doyle, referring to an Ottawa restaurant. “That was the greatest gig we’ve played in Ottawa till now.”
The group performed full tilt the whole night and you practically expected them to collapse on stage after the last note. The stage had a large screen set up as a backdrop where the corresponding videos for songs were played. Several times Doyle had to have his guitars replaced because of what seemed like busted strings.
As Doyle promised, the group performed all the hits – Lukey, Sea of no cares, If I were king, Donkey riding, Consequence free –  and McCann performed his usual climactic Mari-Mac. Hallett pulled out the tin whistle, mandolin, accordion and fiddle for several songs and after two hours and two encores the show ended with The old black rum and Rant and roar doesn’t get much more downhome than that.
It may be hard to believe, but it will be hard for St. John’s to top the welcome Great Big Sea received in Ottawa.
Apparently, this may be the last gig we’ll see from the b’ys for a little while. According to reports, the group plans to take a six-month hiatus.
In the Ottawa Sun the next day, reporter Denis Armstrong wrote: “I have never been afraid for my life at a concert before. At least not until last night’s Grey Cup gig with Great Big Sea at the Civic Centre.” While this Newfoundland reporter seconds the sentiment, the most memorable part of the evening was experiencing such a distinctly Newfoundland party so far away from home.

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