Wednesday, February 23, 2011



For 18 years, Sean McCann has lived in a bit of anonymity, despite the fact he's been an integral part of Atlantic Canada's biggest band. You might not even recognize his name, but you surely know him as a member of Great Big Sea, and you'd probably know his face if you saw him. But Alan Doyle has grabbed the larger share of individual fame, as the more outspoken member of the group, and even starring in the movie Robin Hood with his buddy Russell Crowe. McCann has been there from the start, sharing in the singing, songwriting and band-leading. Now, after all those years of comparitive quiet, he has emerged with two solo albums in less than a year.

So what's caused this sudden burst of solo work? No, there's no trouble in the Great Big Sea camp. They're still touring like crazy. It's all hands on deck, always, when it comes to Great Big Sea. It's actually been all that touring work that has caused McCann to do even more work. With a schedule of over a hundred shows a year, including some far-flung territories in North America, that means hours and hours on the tour bus. McCann has found the best way to pass that time is to write. And write. Now, with three writers in the band already, he simply has too much material to offer. So what to do? Last year's Lullabies For Bloodshot Eyes celebrated new fatherhood, obviously a personal release for him. Now comes Son Of A Sailor. While it's not as directly personal, there are some personal tunes here, including the title track, as indeed he is the son of a sailor, and grandson too. No surprise, given Great Big Sea's long career of telling those kind of Newfoundland stories.

GBS fans will want to know if McCann's solo work is like that of the band's, and the quick answer is yes, you'll certainly recognize his style of writing and singing and the instruments here. They are what you'd expect, fiddle, whistles, bouzuki, all those little touches on top of guitars and such. But what isn't here is the more raucous and fun side of the group. This is a more gentle, folk-oriented disc, a songwriter, ballad kind of album. What you get is a group of poignant tales: some personal, but mostly an opportunity to peer into the lives of others, characters for which McCann shows empathy. There's the Newfoundland fishery, of course, and those folks. We hear about soldiers at wartime, and a loving couple who's marriage lasts many years, and we get the start and the finish. It's actually inspired by his grandparents. That song features a duet vocal with Jeen O'Brien, the Toronto singer who has worked with the band and Hawksley Workman before. Other guests include, surprise, the whole Great Big Sea bunch, all over the album, plus Kelly Russell from the beloved Newfoundland group Figgy Duff, and Boyd MacNeil of the Barra MacNeils.

Now I should mention it's not all quiet, there are some uptempo tunes, but those ones are strumming sing-alongs, not the fist-pumpers Great Big Sea can do. So there's enough tempo-switching to make it an enjoyable listen all through. To answer that obvious question, yes...if you like the Great Big Sea sound, you'll like this album, and you're also going to be introduced to a new side of Sean McCann, and get a better understanding about what makes his band tick. In many ways, he provides much of the heart of the group.

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