High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, March 19, 2007

The Newfoundgoodland: Great Big Sea in Milwaukee, WI

So M and I failed not once, but twice, to get special-person tickets for Great Big Sea. Nonetheless, we decided that if we added some hot bonobo-on-bonobo-on-bonobo action into the mix, we might be able to make do with pleb tickets in The Good Land.

The concert was at the Potawatomi casino, which didn't particularly thrill me (for most of the same reasons cited by Alan here, and yes, that's hypocritical, because I love a few days in Vegas). It thrilled me less when we wound up parking (thanks to inadequate signage) in the first lot we saw, and walking through 86 miles worth of construction (the entire city of Milwaukee appears to be under construction) to get there.

However, the Northern Lights Theater is actually quite a pleasant venue, and a welcome oasis of nonsmoking, to boot. It reminds me most of The Park West in layout, but I doubt it seats as many. Although we finally bought tickets a mere three days in advance, we were in the back of a comfy, high-backed booth one level above the mosh tables (presumably, these were the early release tickets) with a couple who were pleasant enough, but not overly chatty. The drinks, of course, were overpriced, but at least good drinks. The basket of fried stuff to tide us over until dinner, ditto.

The show started quite promptly at 8 PM (M and his "atoms" claim 8:02, but we spurn him), and as was the case with last year's "Evening with Great Big Sea", there were two sets and no opening band. Although there was not as strong a divide in material between the two sets as there was last year, the staging also followed the same pattern, beginning with a minimal drum kit (he had a floor tom this year, which my notes from last year suggest he did not, but I wouldn't trust me if I were you and I'm me, so pause to consider) for Kris, and everyone in front of the draped lights. Murray had a stand-up bass in addition to his amplified acoustic.

M, because he likes to be a pain in the ass, declared (jokingly, I can assure you, because you might not know from his utter lack of sarcastic voice) early on that this might be the moment when GBS would jump the shark. This was initially based on the addition of the upright bass, which Murray used with all their fancy new instruments. When Alan pulled out a banjo at one point, a mandolin (which I think we've seen him play before) at another, and his sweet, sweet electric gibson at yet another, M again gave me a significant look. And then Bob started changing instruments midsong, making him guilty, at least, of hubris.

Although I utterly scorn assertions, however in jest they might be, of shark jumping, I do note that our scruffy boys were all wearing button-down shirts and that Sean and Bob have both cut their hair and look almost respectable. Alan's beautiful rock hair remains intact, thankfully, and he used it to great advantage. In general, they all looked fitter and more rested than last year, which warms my heart.

Set 1 kicked off with "Billy Peddle" and "Go Boys Go (Chemical Workers' Song)," which they immediately followed with "When I'm Up." Although I would follow these lads anywhere (especially, as I've noted before they always tour when it's spring and the wanderlust sets in), I suppose some people might wonder why they're touring at the moment. There's no new album this year (boo!), although the plan is to record one throughout 2007 for release in time for next year's temptational tour (hurray!), so this tour is meant to feature a healthy mix of things they haven't done in a long while plus more recently released things and a handful of genuinely new stuff.

Alan's "From the Road" entry from Kalamazoo, MI, to which I linked above, says they debuted three new songs, but we only got two: "Walk on the Moon" is akin to "Ordinary Day" and feels like it could have been on Something Beautiful. I liked it a lot, but I can imagine that those who are mostly fans of their more traditional stuff will be impatient with it. The second, which doesn't yet have a title (Alan refers to it as "Here We Go Again" in his journal), is much bouncier and feels traditional, though it's new. Unless I passed out for a while, we did not get "Where I Belong," which, from Alan's description, is a real return to roots in the same vein as some of the songs off the debut CD. I'm sorry we missed it.

In terms of things that I don't think I've ever seen them perform live before, I'm dredging my memory here (there's been a zoo trip, an opera, a chocolate buffet, and a Secret Country show since then, so bear with me). It's quite likely that I'd never heard the two opening numbers live, or at least not since back in 2002 when I saw the boys live for the first time.

I'd absolutely never heard Sean do "Captain Wedderburn" live. It was not only a real treat, it served as a reminder that he doesn't always sing the songs about lying, cheating, and generally being a dawg, just most of the time. In some ways, Sean's voice has changed the most over the course of their nearly 15 years (yikes!) together, and this performance was a nice demonstration that he still has the sweet, high tenor chops he's always had and they're greatly enhanced by the more dynamic range he's developed. Sean also did "Feel it Turn" in the second set, which not only have I never seen, I am not sure I've ever heard it, because of my spouses desultory ripping practices in the past. (In fact, as I'm going through their discography, there are many things I've never heard [and I wonder about the mysterious asterisk by Something Beautiful], so I guess I'll be digging through some CDs.)

Although it wasn't new itself, the performance of "Sea of No Cares," permanently transformed the song for me. I actually quite like the version that ended up on the CD bearing that name, but I realized when I heard it performed by the guy from the Push Stars who cowrote it (with Alan on acoustic, of course) that the CD version is on the overproduced end of the spectrum. For the performance on Thursday, Alan asked us to imagine ourselves at Sean's place on a foggy Wednesday Newfoundland afternoon, surrounded by beagles. Um, yes please.

Also among the things never before heard on stage (and quite possibly never to be heard again) were: Sean's Sammy Davis, Jr., impression, which led to an impromptu rendition of "Somewhere Beyond the Sea" and repeated demands for a "Brandy McBrandy," which were eventually fulfilled, for good or for ill; Alan's leading the crowd into a medley of "Country Road" and "This Land is Your Land," which was just plain weird; and some recitative about doing casino shows more often, because they're over 21 and give the boys the opportunity to be really filthy. (For the curious, "penis" is Alan's idea of really filthy, "poo" is Sean's.)

The boys being funny and charming and adorable is nothing new at all, but they were perhaps more relaxed and playful this year than last. Last year, of course, jokes abounded about pitching a CD like The Hard and the Easy to a corporate monolith, but there was a slightly hysterical shine to their eyes. Methinks there was some joking on the square going on. In Milwaukee, they kidded constantly about the venue, which made Alan feel like a Gladiator (he kept demanding Barabbas, which got funnier each time) and Sean like a member of the Rat Pack (hence the Sammy Davis impression). Bob, as Alan noted, actually smiled and laughed on stage. Multiple times. (Don't worry, Bob, it took nothing away from the fact that you are the only human being alive who has a rock star stance and strut built up around the button accordion.)

Other comic highlights included Alan's long-winded introduction to "When I Am King." During the course of it, the band decided that the song was really more an "Alan and Friends" song, and the light man helped get this across by leaving the rest of the band in darkness with a single spot on Alan. This was all the funnier because it was meant to explain how embarrassed he was about the self-centered second verse. Also, Sean told us that he prefers a wax to a shave (apropos being "like a brother to Shave"), and Alan promised to kiss away his pain (I have no idea). Alan doesn't care about Murray's pain, apparently, because only Sean noted that they were going to have to give Murray more verses, given the amount of anger he injected into his on "Scolding Wife." (Murray suggested that they give him less anger, but this suggestion went unnoticed.) But probably the funniest thing was Alan pantomiming the role of the "Rover's" lover, raising her arms up around her breast.

Each set was a little more than an hour, and they came out for two encores. The second—an unamplified version of "River Driver" sung from the apron—was incredibly beautiful. Or at least it was once the fucking tone deaf drunk woman behind me finally recognized Alan's repeated gestures for quiet until the very last reprise of the chorus, at which point we all joined in. I'm always greedy for whatever they don't have time to play, but this show was a really great mix of things from their whole career. Sure, I'd have loved more from The Hard and the Easy, but I loved hearing things from way back on Great Big Sea and Up. I loved it all, even Alan's little screw up in "Excursion Around the Bay," and the mystery of whether or not Kris was really playing the piano accordion or just using it as an accessory.

It was a great night, and I deeply regret that we didn't follow through on my brilliant plan to high-tail it back to Chicago and catch them at the Riviera on Friday, but the bonobos, they were calling, as was the hound dog.

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