Review: Atlantic Blue

Review | by Doug Gallant

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The shortest journey home is always through the heart. For it is there that we store everything of real value in our lives. And it is there we go to feel whole again when time and tide have taken us far away from people we love, from the familiar sights, sounds and smells that were part of our growing up and from the living, breathing spirit of that place we call home.

Someone who knows that well is singer-songwriter Tara MacLean who spent a good portion of her life living across the country on Salt Spring Island but has since returned home, drawn by her deep love of this place and everything that makes it special to her.

One of those things that makes not just P.E.I. but indeed all of Atlantic Canada special to MacLean is this region’s rich musical tradition, a tradition personified by iconic East Coast artists like Hank Snow, Ron Hynes, Gene MacLellan, Gordie Sampson, Stompin’ Tom Connors and Rita MacNeil. Their music and MacLean’s deep connection to that music prompted her to begin writing Atlantic Blue while still living on the West Coast. She was homesick and this was one way for her to connect with her musical heritage. And connect she did.

For the past two years the show born of her desire to make that connection has drawn audiences to The Guild in Charlottetown. But this year MacLean took the bold step, some would say the obvious next step, of trying to take Atlantic Blue to the next level by moving to The Mack to become part of the Charlottetown Festival. That move has enabled her to grow the show in ways that were simply not possible before because the resources were not there.

With the support of festival artistic director Adam Brazier and the blessing of The Guild, MacLean has been able to pump up her front line by adding five of the strongest voices in the festival, Josée Boudreau, Alana Hibbert, Jacob MacInnis, Andrew McAllister and Brendan Wall. She’s also been able to draw from the festival orchestra, adding a four-piece string section to the tight four-piece band she already had.

Together they continue the journey MacLean began when she first set pen to paper, helping her explore the deep roots of Atlantic Canadian music and celebrate the artistry of the people who made that music. And it is a beautiful journey.

That journey is populated with music that has been part of our lives for what seems like forever, from Gene MacLellan’s “Snowbird” and Rita MacNeil’s “Working Man” to The Rankin’s “Fare Thee Well Love” and Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “Bud The Spud.” From Lennie Gallant’s “Peter’s Dream” and Hank Snow’s “A Fool Such As I” to Sarah McLachlan’s “Hold On.”

MacLean’s own choice material, from Shaye-era “Happy Baby” to one of her newest songs, “Love Never Dies,” also vie for attention with gems like Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter” and Lennie Gallant’s “La Tempete.”

While MacLean is front and centre for much of the show every member of the cast shares the spotlight with her. Everybody has that one number or numbers that they put their own stamp on, like Alana Hibbert’s take on “Put Your Hand In The Hand” or Andrew McAllister’s version of “Peter’s Dream” or Brendan Wall’s big as life run at “Bud The Spud.”

There’s so much happening here musically and it’s pretty much all good, like the pairing of MacLean and Wall for a duet on Gene MacLellan’s “The Call” or the triple threat of MacLean, Boudreau and Hibbert on a unique arrangement of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.” Big voices like these can sell a song in a heartbeat and the harmonies they create here are gorgeous.

But it’s not just the songs that sell Atlantic Blue, it’s the stories behind the songs and the insights MacLean and company provide into the lives of these songwriters. It would be difficult to watch Atlantic Blue and not come away with a greater appreciation of the rich musical tradition of this region. It is not difficult to understand why this music means as much as it does to MacLean and why it called her home.

Kudos to director Mary Francis Moore, musical director Craig Fair and the show’s design team for helping Atlantic Blue reach that next level.

Doug Gallantreview