Great Big Sea performs “Ferryland Sealer," 1999. From You Tube
Spirited live performances have long been a hallmark of Great Big Sea. In the tradition of the convivial Newfoundland "kitchen party," their concerts are as much communal celebrations as they are musical events. Yet there can be no denying the musical talents of the band members, whose uplifting vocals, a cappella harmonies, and driving instrumental rhythms are perhaps best appreciated in concert. The band has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe, garnering critical acclaim and large audiences in centres such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dublin, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Hamburg, London, Minneapolis, New York, Seattle, Washington, as well as virtually every major Canadian city. In 1998 the group toured the US with renowned Celtic masters The Chieftains. Their 1999 New Year's concert on the St John's waterfront drew a crowd of over 90,000 and was carried by television networks worldwide.
Great Big Sea's music has been described as "Celtic rock" or even "aggressive folk," but the essence of their style is a unique brand of pop music founded on the Newfoundland folk music tradition. (Like-minded groups of an earlier generation included folk revivalists Figgy Duff and the 1970s comedic/musical collective known as the Wonderful Grand Band.) In this sense, Great Big Sea's stylistic roots represent a radical departure from the predominantly American models that have tended to shape the mainstream currents of North American popular music. Yet remarkably, mainstream acceptance is precisely what the band has achieved for Newfoundland's folk songs, ballads, and dances, some of which were seldom heard even in Newfoundland (for example, the once obscure, now widely popular "Excursion Around the Bay" from the debut album).
Central to this process are the band's creative arrangements, which deftly mould traditional melodies and lyrics to fit the verse-chorus-hook structures of contemporary pop music. The song "Lukey," as performed on the album Up, serves as an interesting case in point. The closing line of the folk song, "Ah-ha, me boys," is adapted as a chorus by lengthening and harmonizing the melody line, while a repeating line played on the mandolin functions as a "hook" separating the verse-choruses. In other instances, disparate strands of traditional melodies are woven into a seamless texture, such as the instrumental dance medley "Dancing with Mrs White" from Up (a tribute to Newfoundland's "first lady of the accordion," Minnie White), or the similarly inspired "Chafe's Ceilidh" from Something Beautiful.
Recent recordings reveal a tendency toward experimentation in instrumental colour (such as the presence of electric and flamenco guitars, mariachi trumpet sections, and drums on Sea of No Cares). While Great Big Sea's traditional roots run deep, original songs such as "When I Am King" (Doyle) and "Love" (McCann) from Something Beautiful serve to remind listeners of their remarkable songwriting abilities and a growing willingness to explore the band's pop potential. In songs such as "French Perfume" (Hallett) from Sea of No Cares, folk-inspired lyrics and melodies blend convincingly into a contemporary idiom that is both distinctive and refreshingly natural.
Great Big Sea has received a number of Juno Award nominations, including Best Roots & Traditional Album-Group (for Up, Play, Turn, and The Hard and the Easy), Best Video (for the songs "Run Runaway" and "Lukey"), Music DVD of the Year (for Great Big DVD), and Group of the Year (1998, 2005, 2009, and 2011). The band has won an unprecedented eighteen East Coast Music Awards, including Album of the Year (1998, 2000, 2003), Group of the Year (1998, 2000, 2003), Pop Recording of the Year (1998, 2003), Single of the Year (1998), Video of the Year (1997, 1999, 2003), and Entertainer of the Year (1996-2000, 2003).
Up. 1995. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 12277
Play. 1997. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 18592
Rant and Roar. 1998. Sire CD 31023
Turn. 1999. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 2 27734
Road Rage. 2000. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 2 84666
Sea of No Cares. 2002. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 2 43310
Great Big DVD. 2003. Warner Music Canada DVD 2 60939
Something Beautiful. 2004. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 2 61387
The Hard and the Easy. 2005. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 2 62606
Fortune's Favour. 2008. Warner Music Canada WEA CD 2 951727
Safe Upon the Shore. 2010. Warner Music Canada 2 813179
Author Glenn D. Colton
Bliss, Karen. "Great Big Sea: Keeping with Tradition," Canadian Musician, vol 19, no. 3, Jun 1997
DePalma, Anthony. "Giving Newfoundland's Celtic Melodies a 90s Sound," New York Times, 21 May 1998
Fleming, Lee. Rock, Rhythm and Reels (Charlottetown, PE, 1997)
Jones, Christopher. "Great Big Sea's Creative Evolution," Words & Music, vol 7, no. 1, Jan-Feb 2000
Jones, Simon. "New Found Sea," Folk Roots, vol 23, no. 7, Jan-Feb 2002
LeBlanc, Larry. "Great Big Sea Embraces Stylistic Mix," Billboard, 14 Jun 1997
Nelligan, Tom. "Great Big Sea: Aggressive Folk," Dirty Linen, vol 85, Dec 1999- Jan 2000
Rogers, Ron. "Great Big Sea: Raging on the road," RPM Magazine, 9 Oct 2000
Stockwood, Kim. "Kitchen Music for the Masses: Great Big Sea Stirs UP Traditional Tunes," Words & Music, Feb 1996
Links to Other Sites
Great Big Sea
The website for Great Big Sea, popular St. John's-based, Juno-nominated band that fuses Newfoundland traditional music with modern pop. Features a biography, discography, music clips and more.
Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle is one lucky balladeer
An article about singer-songwriter Alan Doyle's role in the movie "Robbin Hood." From thestar.com.