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.