Located a few blocks up from the historic St. John’s harbor, George Street is a weekend playground for Newfoundland youth—and the young at*heart.
For much of the day, the area is serene. But between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., passers-by are treated to the sounds of country, blues, reggae and traditional Newfoundland music roaring out from the packed pubs that line the street.
This is where the four members of Great Big Sea cut their musical
teeth, honing a play list and performance style that practically commands the listener to head to the dance floor. Now, with two popular CDs (each has sold more than 200,000 copies) and a loyal fan base across Canada, Newfoundland’s fab four are ready to launch their own American invasion. It begins on June 2 with the release of their first American CD, Rant and Roar, followed quickly by concert dates with Sinéad O’Connor and The Chieftains in several major centres, including New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. “An opportunity like this is a real gift—and a real challenge,” says Great Big Sea multi-instrumentalist Bob Hallett. “But we’ve built our career on facing up to insurmountable odds.”
Formed in 1993, after each of the band members—Hallett, Alan Doyle, Darrell Power and Sean McCann, now all in their late 20s— had worked their way through Memorial University by playing the St. John’s bar scene, Great Big Sea represents a self-conscious attempt to bring the infectious rhythms of traditional Newfoundland music to a larger audience. As performed at kitchen parties and in dank, smoky pubs, the music is a unique blend of Irish, Scottish, English and French-Canadian influences. Great Big Sea delivers it all with a loud-and-proud pop sensibility—it is no accident that band members count the showy 1970s group Queen among their
musical idols. “From very early on, we felt that Newfoundland music would benefit from a high-energy performance,” says vocalist and guitarist Doyle. “We wanted to make it as universal as possible.”
Using a self-titled 1993 CD as their calling card, Great Big Sea set out to conquer mainland Canada. After establishing a beachhead in Halifax, they worked their way westward on the pub and festival circuit. “We made our fans the old-fashioned way—one at a time,” laughs Doyle. Relentless touring—the band plays over 200 dates a year—eventually led to radio play and strong sales for
the 1995 CD, Up, and 1997’s Play. A big break came at the 1996 East Coast Music Awards when the four were named entertainers of the year, beating out acts like Ashley Maclsaac and The Rankins. Great Big Sea has taken home that trophy each year since, scooping up four other awards in February as well.
The group’s strategy for tackling the United States is somewhat different. They hope Rant and Roar, which includes selections from both Up and Play, will garner some mainstream U.S. radio and video exposure. The concerts with O’Connor and The Chieftains are intended to give the band quick, mass exposure to the type of folk and roots music fans who should be a natural audience for Great Big Sea. “We didn’t just want to trickle our way into the States,” explains bassist Power. “We wanted to get our music in front of the people, and it looks like that is going to happen this summer.”
But the musicians are determined to stay rooted in St. John’s: it’s where friends and family live, and where they draw their inspiration. “We’re playing a form of music that is greater than ourselves,” says Doyle. “Long after we’re dead and gone, we’d like to think we introduced the world to a culture everyone should know about.”
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