At one point, I thought the balcony might collapse. In the front row of the balcony section, I could see the lighting equipment shake and the railing was moving up and down, up and down, nearly a full one-quarter of an inch. It was possible that we would die. It would not, all things considered, be the worst way to go - in a collapse of the Michigan Theater balcony, a story that would no doubt become legendary in the special way things do on college campuses. But it would have been a bit of a bummer, seeing as we were in the middle of my first Great Big Sea concert and, when I wasn't staving off panic attacks about my impending doom, I was having a rollicking time.
My standards have changed drastically over the years. Great evenings don't require much from me. But spending some time with good friends (in this case, played by Graham and Rainey) and listening to some grand music ranks high enough that I'm more than happy to leave the power-drinking and bar-dwelling to the rest of the world.
I'm no expert in the traditional folk music of Newfoundland - although, after tonight, I'm considerably better versed than before - but it has a lot in common with traditional Irish folk music. Except, perhaps, Newfoundland has more songs about horses falling through the ice. I'm also generally one of those people who doesn't enjoy concerts as much if I don't know the music going in. And while I'd heard of Great Big Sea in the past, I'd only actually listened to a few of their songs which, on disk, sounded a bit to me like Elvis Costello heading up the Pogues. Which is not a bad thing.
But it's hard to express what a difference it makes if the band's fun. Now, I know there's a legacy of rockers-as-assholes, especially in a week when the Sex Pistols refused to acknowledge their entree into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I get that, especially when you're young and into self-flagellation, it helps to have rock gods who look down on you in the way you think you deserve.
There's also something to be said about musicians who are mostly that and who appear to enjoy what they do. There are few bands, I think, that honestly offer much point to seeing them live anymore. There are even fewer who are born performers, who put as much energy into each appearance as the audience does.
While it always makes my more "alternative" friends cringe when I proclaim it, my very favorite band to see live is Barenaked Ladies. Not only does their music play every bit as well live as recorded, but these guys have a hilarious on-stage presence. They indulge in banter with the crowd, improvise and dance and you're pretty sure you're not getting the exact same show in another town. It's almost, in fact, as if they appreciate you're there.
In my college days, bands like Poi Dog Pondering would take to the stage and own the whole thing, cramming themselves and their multitude of instruments into every corner. Now, while their music didn't always sound that great live, they made up for it in energy. They performed.
Great Big Sea is one of those bands. They switch off instruments and roles at a dizzying pace, so you're never quite sure who's the bodrhan expert, who best handles the accordian and who you'd turn to first in a tin whistle emergency.
There was no opening band tonight, which is rare these days. But that allowed Great Big Sea to deliver a two-and-a-half hour show with an intermission in between. The first half they dedicated to the traditional songs covered on their latest album before returning in the second half with a mix of traditional and, for lack of a better word, "rock" music.
Great Big Sea are not, even in their own compositions, the most original band on earth - but I think that's part of what makes them so accessible. Half of their repertoire follows the familiar beat of pub songs. If you've heard one build up to a frantic jig, you've heard them all. But that doesn't mean you don't want to hear them all anyway, and get up and stomp your feet in time.
And even the most hard-edged music critic might find it hard to resist the genuine and sometimes hilarious banter tossed back and forth between lead singers Bob Hallett and Sean McCann. Because, even if I didn't know if before, it turns out I'm a sucker for a Newfoundland accent.
In the end, the balcony didn't come down, despite the stomping feet and jumping bodies of hundreds of fans doing their best to challenge the architecture. We survived the night to spill back out into the cold of Ann Arbor, a little buoyed by that very simple thing, that unequaled satisfaction of just having had a really good time.