Being Alive With Sean McCann

Review by Bill Monahan of Sean McCann in concert at Meaford Hall, May 5, 2017

So the question is, when a pivotal member of one of Canada’s best known party bands, celebrated for its drinking songs, decides to get sober, leave the band and go out on his own, filled with an overwhelming enthusiasm for abstinence, what kind of concert can you expect?  On Friday night at Meaford Hall, Sean McCann, formerly of Great Big Sea, provided the definitive answer…Parteee!!

The concert, from the moment he came dancing out on stage to the encore when he and accompanist Chris Murphy walked singing through the audience, was an endless ode to the joy of being alive.

Well maybe not entirely.  The opening song, though stirring, was a grim sea tale in the true tradition of Newfoundland, where an ebullient life meets daily with the dangers and tragedies of the sea.  Sean walked across the stage, down the steps and stood on the floor in front of the stage, daring to open his concert without the benefit of amplification.  “Can you hear me?” he asked the hushed audience, “I’m going to start here.”  And he sang a cappella, “Safe Upon the Shore” the title song from Great Big Sea’s 2010 album, about a girl who asks the sea to return her sailor safely to her.  Seeing him floating on a spar washing in toward her, she “thought with bliss how she would kiss the lips she did adore” only to discover as he came closer that he was a corpse.

One thing’s for sure, Sean McCann has landed safe upon the shore after his painful parting from Great Big Sea and conquering his alcoholism.  The concert was a great big celebration of resilience and courage and most of all, the power of love.  And if that sounds all a little too sober, it was the opposite, with every song set in that alternatively rollicking and heartfelt style that characterizes the music of Newfoundland.  Throughout the concert he had the audience singing along.  And they were so into it, when he sang a line from the old chestnut “You Are My Sunshine” just as a little aside, the audience immediately and without urging sang the entire song.  This was indeed a communal celebration of life, the kind of thing that Meaford Hall (“built from love” he said) is built for.

Throughout the concert Sean repeated how happy he was to be here, saying it was a night he would long remember.

The music was wonderful.   Sean occasionally plays some delicate finger-picking but he usually revs up his acoustic guitar with fast strumming, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Murphy added beautiful textures to every song in a way that dressed them up very nicely.

While he didn’t take it to extremes, and he certainly didn’t preach, Sean made it clear how sobriety has improved his life and he had a little story to tell about each song.  He told us how producer Joel Plaskett convinced him to include the last drinking song he wrote, “Red Wine and Whiskey”, on his “recovery” album, “Help Your Self” because it too was part of his story, and the anecdote added context to emphasize the power of alcohol dependency expressed in lines like “A dry life ain’t worth living / The desert grants no Ease / So I’ll sink into the Ocean / And drink the 7 Seas.”  The rest of the songs in the concert proved that the opposite is true.

One of his most moving stories was about his participation at Shaun Majumder’s annual concert called The Gathering, held in the town of Burlington, Newfoundland.  It was just after he had broken up the band and he wasn’t feeling too good about the thought of singing any Great Big Sea songs.  But he encountered backstage a woman who had been following the band for years and she changed his mind, at the same time changing his life.  I’ll leave it to him to tell you the rest of the story (which he does so well) when you see him in concert (which you definitely should do) but this “angel” made him realize that “anger is the enemy”, a lesson everyone would benefit from learning.

Near the end of the second set, he asked for requests and dozens called out song titles.  While teasing us with “whatever you want, I’ll sing it for you,” he shook his head and said no to every title he could make out, finally giving us a very nice rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”.  He had a request of his own, to hear a song from Chris Murphy.  Chris borrowed his guitar and sang “Finally Coming Home”, the title song from his own album.  Chris is from Kingston, Ontario but everything about him, his pennywhistle, his accordion, his bodhran and his songs sound like the maritimes.  His album was produced in Cape Breton by famed musician J.P. Cormier.  Chris is a member of the Celtic/Folk quintet Turpin’s Trail, worth keeping an eye out for (be sure to catch them if they come to Meaford Hall).

Throughout the concert Sean repeated how happy he was to be here, saying it was a night he would long remember.  So will the audience. Both Sean and Chris have promised to return here often, and let’s hope they keep their promise.

This is the first in a series of three reviews of the concerts that comprised the Grand Re-opening Event at Meaford Hall.  Tomorrow’s post will review Rockin’ The Hall, Vol. 2


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