Great Big Sea makes it personal

Bringing Newfoundland’s music and culture to the world is a lofty goal for any band — and it seemed near impossible 20 years ago when Great Big Sea came up with the notion.

Bringing Newfoundland’s music and culture to the world is a lofty goal for any band — and it seemed near impossible 20 years ago when Great Big Sea came up with the notion.

“We might as well have told people we wanted to be professional wrestlers … nobody from Newfoundland had ever been successful at a national level,” recalled the group’s fiddler, accordionist and bagpiper Bob Hallett.

What made the band’s aim seem more absurd and implausible is that the musicians of Great Big Sea were playing only traditional instruments.

“We had no electric guitars, drum kit or amplifiers. … We would just play our acoustic instruments very loudly in St. John’s bars,” said Hallett.

The Great Big Sea members came to realize that if they wanted to take “truthful” Newfoundland music to other provinces (no small feat, considering the island is a four-day drive — including six-hour ferry ride — from Toronto) they would also have to recreate the “kitchen party” atmosphere of their raucous local concerts across the country.

But how does one create an intimate, yet celebratory, mood in taverns and cavernous arenas far from home?

Hallett, who performs with the rest of the band at a sold-out show on Monday, Oct. 28, at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre, believes it comes down to making fans, whether they number five or 5,000, feel an integral part of the musical experience.

“You have to get people singing along and dancing and laughing … you have to make it personal, give people the opportunity to, not just watch you, but get caught up in what you are doing. They need to feel they’re part of it.”

Some 10 albums on, the Celtic-rock band has become known for energetic contemporary interpretations of traditional folk songs that draw on the island’s 500-year-old Irish, Scottish, Cornish — and even French — heritage.

Many Canadians are familiar with such Great Big Sea hits as Ordinary Day, When I’m Up (I Can’t Get Down), Can’t Stop Falling, End of the World, Consequence Free and others. In the process, the core trio — including Alan Doyle (vocals, guitar, bouzouki, mandolin) and Séan McCann (vocals, bodhran, guitar, tin whistle) — are celebrated not only in this country, but in as far-flung locales as Australia and Europe.

Hallett admitted he has toured North America countless times, but has never tired of playing for people who want to listen.

“It’s my favourite thing to do in life — stand on stage and play with the band. I am always aware of what a privilege it is to play for people who really want to be there.

“That kind of excitement never wears off.”

Great Big Sea’s latest album, XX, is a greatest hits package and then some.

For many years, Hallett said the group resisted putting out a best-of collection because members preferred thinking about the next project rather than looking back at ground already covered. But after so many albums, “the excuses began to sound kind of silly.”

Hallett said band members easily came up with a core of hit songs — both pop-oriented and traditional ones — for the two-disc set that’s already hit gold in sales.

There was enough room left for six new tunes, including Le Bon Vin, a Newfoundland version of an old French folk song.

Hallett noted it’s a little known fact that some Acadians settled on the island, along with a few native French citizens who migrated from St. Pierre and Miquelon, two nearby islands belonging to territorial France.

Another new tune, Josephine the Baker, has nothing to do with 1920s entertainer Josephine Baker or the old Appalachian song the band borrowed the title from.

Hallett said the Great Big Sea version is based on his own early days in the Canadian navy and time spent in St. John’s sailor pubs.

“About 70 per cent of the Canadian navy is made up of Newfoundlanders,” he volunteered.

“You won’t find too many Prairie boys!”

More surprises are in store on the XX box set, with bonus material. It contains a third disc of some of the band’s lesser known “experimental tunes.” Hallett said these are “B-side” songs that went astray either lyrically or musically.

“Maybe one person thought the song was good and everybody else disagreed.”

Adding a disc of less successful songs may well be “unheard of,” he said, but the group wanted to create an honest record of its own history — and he believes these musical “missteps” will be fascinating to fans who appreciate a band’s varied journey.

Just Posted

Wind remains on firefighters’ side in bout with northern Alberta wildfire

HIGH LEVEL, Alta. — A government update says a lighter wind out… Continue reading

Central Alberta’s largest garage sale helps animals

VIP shopping night May 30 in Red Deer

Downtown Red Deer businesses concerned non-profit will move into prominent Ross Street space

Concern builds over John Howard Society converting a retail bay into office space

Seeking energy independence, Palestinians open solar plant

JERICHO, Palestinian Territory — Palestinian officials say they have inaugurated their first… Continue reading

UK, Japan mobile operators suspend Huawei 5G phone launches

LONDON — British and Japanese mobile phone companies said Wednesday they’re putting… Continue reading

Dogs and drugs don’t mix: Red Deer business wants to leave downtown after 18 years

One business owner is done with downtown Red Deer after 18 years.… Continue reading

Cast your votes for the Best of Red Deer

Nominations for the Best of Red Deer Readers’ Choice Awards are officially… Continue reading

Canada hires firm to ship back garbage, will be done before end of June: McKenna

OTTAWA — Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says the Canadian trash that has… Continue reading

Newfoundland man pleads not guilty in case of skeleton stolen from graveyard

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A young Newfoundland man pleaded not guilty Wednesday… Continue reading

Canadians increasingly worried over boomers’ health bills, survey finds

CHARLOTTETOWN — Canadians are increasingly concerned about how to pay for the… Continue reading

Gonzalez helps power Twins to 8-3 victory over Angels

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Marwin Gonzalez keeps coming through for the Minnesota Twins.… Continue reading

Another athlete slams testosterone rules, refuses medication

NAIROBI, Kenya — Another Olympic medallist has criticized the IAAF’s testosterone regulations… Continue reading

Madonna perfects her off-key Eurovision act online

JERUSALEM — The Queen of Pop has cleaned up her act. After… Continue reading

Cher’s Winnipeg concert scrubbed at last minute due to sudden short-term illness

WINNIPEG — About 10,000 Cher fans in Winnipeg went home disappointed Tuesday… Continue reading

Most Read