Great Big Sea, “Rant & Roar” [Sire Records 31023]

A Mummer’s Delight

August 2006

Are you in need of a rollicking good time musical adventure to start up your next “kitchen party” or mummering? Take heed then of Great Big Sea, and this gem of a recording. For those of you not from the isle of Newfoundland, mummering refers to the tradition of street parades, visits to homes in disguise and all such merriment around the Christmas season that still is celebrated by many in Newfoundland. The tradition dates back to 6th Century Rome when all entertainers had to roam in disguise to perform because of the church’s outlawing of any public entertainment or drama. The Irish, Scottish and English workers that settled in Newfoundland brought this tradition of mummering with them, along with the tradition of “kitchen parties,” where songs, stories and rollicking good times were communally shared in one’s warm kitchen during long Newfoundland winters.

Many of us were first introduced to this recording of Great Big Sea (the “Sea”) by Chris Sommovigo of Signals Hi-Fi at his demo of the Peak Consult Princess loudspeaker at HES 2005 in New York. For his demo, Chris played the a cappella number, “General Taylor” from this disc, and I have never looked back since. Here we have one of the most captivating, creative and downright rollicking bands on the planet, furnishing the listener with tunes from the Newfoundland musical landscape that shake, rattle and roll with power and convivial energy. The foundation of the Sea’s brilliance is in the synergy of their vocal work. “General Taylor” ranks up there with some of the most beautiful a cappella work I have heard on disc. The piece itself is recorded masterfully, with four musicians in a semi-circle and image dimensionality to die for. If your system is up to the task, you get the sensation of being able to walk around the four vocalists, with a sense of solidity and three-dimensionality that is uncanny to behold. The piece itself is a marvelous interwoven tale, beautifully crafted by these four vocalists. Only the great Persuasions (on their Chesky disc, “Persuasions Sing The Beatles”) come to mind as rivals to this a cappella heaven.

Like leaving a Newfoundland “kitchen party” late on a winter’s night, I challenge anyone to not be singing (and sweating) to the rollicking beat and vocals of this disc’s tunes upon its conclusion. On “Going Up,” the Sea urges you to “hang your jacket in the corner” and enter such a Newfoundland kitchen for “jigs and reels” that truly knock your socks off. Away we go with great button accordion lines from Bob Hallett sailing along in the background, while Darrell Power’s warm bass and bones keep a steady, deep foundation below the wondrous vocal harmonies of the Sea. Then, we head over to “When I’m Up,” where Hallett’s fiddle dashes to and fro, over great positive vibes from the Sea’s harmonies and Alan Doyle’s strong, husky baritone leads. Even in the most complex, rapid passages of this recording, instruments and vocals are recorded distinctly with tremendous dynamic punch and power. Sometimes you might feel the recording a little too forward or bright, but there is no time to think about it, because the music itself is so involving and rhythmically enticing. For example, several vocal pyrotechnics come across with great flare, power and precision in the hands of the Sea. On “Mari-Mac,” this Scottish song is given a fleet-footed vocal work out, with spilling vocals cascading over a river of fiddles, percussion, whistles and every other colorful musical landscape you can imagine. REM’s tongue and cheek merry-go-round of a tune, “End of the World,” is given a devilish turn here, as the Sea’s pristine a cappella vocals swarm over delicate mandolin lines and light snare drum. The Sea bring us right into the action on the Newfoundland traditional “The Night Pat Murphy Died,” with fabulous instrumental colors from accordion, whistles, guitars and everything but “O’Leary’s bagpipes”. It ends with a great crescendo of vocal power from this power foursome. Then we come reluctantly to the end of this journey, with the upbeat “Lukey” punctuated with deep bass drum and congas below a sinuous line of fiddles and guitars. Rounding out the disc is the powerful “Rant & Roar,” which begins with a delicate tin whistle and then literally rolls into a hypnotic vocal tour de force from the deep, powerful voices of the Sea and their distinctive pristine vocal harmonies: “We’ll rant and roar like true Newfoundlanders!” Roar away guys and join me in the kitchen!

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Nelson Brill