Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett and yours truly are deep in discussion on the cuisine values of seaweed. This heated debate triggered by my observation that the only items left out of the band’s mega 20th anniversary XX boxed set comprising of two CD’s of their greatest pop hits and traditional folk songs, a CD of outtakes and studio sessions, an audio CD of a 1993 CBC St John’s radio interview containing live tracks, a behind-the-scenes DVD plus a 104-page booklet, lyric sheets, sundry stickers and posters – is a piece of seaweed and a frozen cod.
“Seaweed, how gross is that,” recoils Doyle in mock horror. “Can’t stand the stuff,” “There’s a guy in Vancouver who sells seaweed on his hotdogs,” adds Hallett. “Has queues around the block, can you believe it?”
Instead of Cod, Doyle believes it would be more realistic to have stuck a lobster in the box, but the semantics of that packaging dilemma defied them. “Can’t stand them either,” mutters Doyle. “Grubby little garbage eaters!”
Doyle and Hallett, minus Sean McCann, are camped out at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel pressing the media flesh to promote their new opus, which comes in two packages; the afore-mentioned boxed set, containing almost 60 songs and a more conservative two-CD set, one disc featuring their more contemporary pop songs and the second showcasing a selection of traditional folk songs and sea shanties. Also included are five new songs; `Heart Of Hearts (their new single), `Born To Believe’, Live This Life’, a Quebecois folkie `Le Bon Vin’ and a cover of Pete Townshend’s `Let My Love Open The Door’.
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The pair had just appeared on the bill at Blue Rodeo’s all-star bash in Toronto (October 29th at the Glen Gould Theatre), performing `Rose Coloured Glasses’ and `What Am I Doing Here’. “Blue Rodeo, they’re our heroes,” waxed Doyle. “They’ve written so many great songs, it was a question of `just pick one’. They say you should never meet your heroes, but Blue Rodeo is just a bunch of great guys and they’ve helped and influenced so many people in this business. It was a pleasure to be on the same stage as them.”
The heart of both packages is the two CD’s comprises of pop hits and folk songs. “We had so many different ideas on how to present the material,” explained Hallett. “We were going to do it chronologically or do it with songs that had videos. But in the end, our fans know us by our pop songs and our folk songs so we decided to divide the influence and dedicate one CD to each genre.
With a North American tour set for March 2013 the question is asked, how Great Big Sea decides on a concert set list with so much material to choose from. “We could just play this,” said Hallett tossing the two-CD set on the table, but then we’re looking at a four-hour concert”.
“I take pride in organizing the set lists,” contributes Doyle. “I’m thinking, tonight has to be an amazing night. Obviously there are half a dozen songs (`Ordinary Day, `Consequence Free’ `When I’m Up’, `Run Runaway’) we have to put in every night – that’s why they buy their tickets. But we can’t go through the night without Sean singing one of his ballads or his sea shanties, so there are a couple of choices there. There’s always a bunch of categories to fill and we always have a few wild cards to change every night.”
Going back to that date March 11th 1993 when Great Big Sea made their performance debut, opening for the Irish Descendants at St John’s Memorial University, could the band envision them, still being relevant 20 years later?
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I thought we would have longevity,” explained Doyle. “Just like I always thought I’d be an NHL hockey player, we always thought positive. I’d fantasize about getting to go play on the mainland, to play in Halifax bars and to actually stay in a hotel.”
“We’d never think too far into the future, we’d be thinking about five months from now, or our next tour or our next album,” added Hallett. “We were always setting short-term objectives.”
[quote]“This show is so big, we could host it without actually playing it. The event is actually bigger than the band!” – Alan Doyle on the annual Great Big Sea Christmas Show[/quote]Great Big Sea emerged at a time when the Maritimes music was the focus of a `grunge wave’ with the likes of Sloan, Eric’s Trip, Jale and Hardship Post were all being feted by international labels like Sub Pop. Yet at the same time, traditional Maritime artists like Rita MacNeil, The Rankin Family, Barra MacNeils and Ashley MacIsaac were also enjoying mainstream exposure.
“I could never identify with that grunge sneaker-gazing stuff,” allowed Doyle. “It was so anti-concert, I hated everything about that. I loved the Eighties, hair bands. I loved the lead singer screaming `You’re going to have the best fucking night of your lives’ Yeahhhh! That’s the show I want to go and see.
Of course Great Big Sea’s influences were far more traditional than hard rock music. “We grew up in Newfoundland, listening and playing traditional music. We had no aspirations to get airplay on CHUM Radio because we didn’t know what CHUM was. We’d never heard of it!”
Yet how could Great Big Sea translate their cultural identity to a mass audience? After releasing a self-titled debut in 1993 of strictly regional fair, GBS struck oil with a follow-up 1995 album, ”Up” that spawned a cover of a hit by English band, Slade titled `Run Runaway’.
“In retrospect it was a pretty inspired song choice,” noted Doyle. “I think it was Darrell (former fourth member Darrell Power) who came up with the song. We had 11 tracks and we needed one more so Darrell said “what about this one”. When I heard it, I thought this is so perfect. Just listen to the song and it sounds like a sea shanty. Ironically, we were also doing REM’s `End Of The World’ at the same time so that song could just as easily have been on the album.”
The idea of taking pop tracks and re-shaping them into more traditional-sounding songs proved to be Great Big Sea’s meal ticket. Airplay generated by `Run Runaway’ and an original `Goin Up’ allowed the band to reach new audiences nationally. “Songs like `Run Runaway’ and `End Of The World’ were our parachute songs,” explained Doyle. “We knew that to do a national tour we’d have to play some rock concerts. So if we played our own stuff and nothing sticks, we’ve always got the covers to turn some heads.”
With future covers including REM’s `End Of The World’, Split Enz’s `Six Months In A Leaky Boat’, the Tremeloes’ `Here Comes My Baby’, the newly recorded cover of Townshend’s `Let My Love Open The Door’ plus their own hits in `When I’m Up’, `Consequence Free’, `Ordinary Day’ and `Oh Yeah’ (that was used as the theme song for tv show Republic Of Doyle) plus a slew of regional folk songs and traditional sea shanties, Great Big Sea, have evolved into a unique musical entity whose trademark is their colorful live show that begins March 9th in Victoria B.C and crosses back and forth across the U.S border before finishing April 26th at the Metro Centre in Halifax.
Surprisingly there are no Toronto or St John’s dates on the itinerary but that’s because Great Big Sea will be back in the summer for their semi-annual Molson Amphitheatre date while St John’s will host the band’s annual Great Big Sea Christmas Show. “This show is so big, we could host it without actually playing it,” cracked Doyle. “The event is actually bigger than the band!”
So is this 20th anniversary package, and concert tour a farewell gesture to their fans? Both Hallett and McCann have been busy working on outside material and Doyle has carved out an acting career starring in the Republic Of Doyle CBC TV series where he’s become buddy with a certain Russell Crowe.
“Yeah, well some long-time buddies of mine have become very successful with that TV series and they said to me ‘You’ve got to be in it’. So I said, okay, what do I do, where do I stand, what do I say”
“As for the future, we were talking about that last night,” noted Hallett. “There are never any long-term plans with Great Big Sea, everything is so cyclical. There are cycles of records and tours but we’ve never get tired of that,” added Hallett.
“I think our new single says it all,” concludes Doyle. “Heart Of Hearts was written for this project and kind of summarizes where we are at right now which is `let the journey continue’.
Photography By: David Howells