Sticking with their roots

By Ashley Martin

Great Big Sea has had an amazing year. Their fifth studio release, Sea of No Cares, debuted at number one on the Canadian music charts. Foot-stomping singles like the title track and “Stumbling In” have been mainstays on local radio stations all across the country. The band also enjoyed national television exposure at this year’s Juno Awards and just finished the “Uprooted Tour” around the United States this summer with two other Celtic bands, Seven Nations and The Young Dubliners.

Great Big Sea is one of the most successful bands to come out of Canada, having firmly established themselves at home and abroad. Now they are bringing the show back home.

For Great Big Sea, tours have always had two functions: getting wider exposure for their own brand of Celtic composition and road testing new songs for future albums. However, fans may be surprised to recognize few singles on Sea of No Cares as this is the first album Great Big Sea has written and recorded completely in the studio. Also for the first time the band tried using the studio itself as an instrument; not a new concept in recording but a radical new approach for Great Big Sea.

“We didn’t get into a band because we wanted to sit in an office all day,” says Bob Hallett, the band’s multi-instrumentalist. “We just bought a studio’s worth of gear, made it portable and just kinda lugged it wherever we found a bit of vacant space or a place that was cool. Even though sonically you can’t hear it, each room had its own vibe and it definitely contributed to the music.”

The difference may not be audible to the average listener but there are definitely some new sounds on Sea of No Cares. For example, on the single “Penelope,” the band incorporates Mexican Mariachi horns for the

first time. Don’t expect the live

show to sound exactly like the CD though. The use of new instruments has presented the band with the challenge of playing the new songs live without additional instrumentalists.

“The big difference on this tour is that we’re carrying full percussive gear, as well as other odds and ends,” says Hallett. “It’s really freed up myself and singer Alan Doyle in particular, because we always had to play rhythm without a drummer. You need that to provide the backbone of the band, and we’re enjoying playing more than we have in past years.”

With all the changes made on the album and to the live show, don’t be mistaken into thinking that Great Big Sea is trying to make a departure from their earlier work. Sea of No Cares, like earlier albums, is a collection of remade traditional Newfoundland folk songs and new songs that band members wrote themselves. Although the newly-written songs have been getting a lot of radio play, Hallet refutes the statement that the bands’ own East Coast culture and heritage are playing less of a role in their music.

“The original model was to make pop music, but to make it using the instruments, the melodies and the rhythms found in Newfoundland traditional music,” says Hallett. “We’ve never really abandoned that. We keep playing with the recipe and changing the order around, but at the end of the day I think what we’ve done has been very consistent to our original goals.”

Any fan of Great Big Sea can attest to the fact that although the albums are eclectic, there is an undeniable flow to them, something that is very important to the band when they’re making an album.

“This day and age when albums are almost an afterthought to the singles, we’re trying to make something that you can listen to from start to finish, while having a lot of variety,” says Hallett. “We’ve tried to make it so that it all fits together, not just two sides of a coin. The sauce goes with the pasta, so to speak.”

Sauce may work well with pasta, but riddle this–can a pub act work well in a stadium? Yet another challenge Great Big Sea has had to meet head on is how to change the live show to fit bigger and bigger venues. Energy and enthusiasm have always been major components of their performance but Hallett admits that it’s harder to entertain stadium crowds, and the ability to entertain at that level can be very important to a band’s success.

“Playing hockey arenas is a very different set of skills because in a small room everyone can see your face and they can form a connection. When you’re in a bigger room you have to do things differently. That’s the reason why Aerosmith and the Stones have been so successful, because they learned how to play concerts at that level and do it consistently and entertain every single person in the room. You don’t learn that in pubs.”

Looking toward the future, Hallett says that Great Big Sea’s main goal is to stay together as a band.

“When you’re 18, everyone’s like, ‘Great we got a band!’ But to do that ten years later is harder because everyone’s interests are more personal,” says Hallett. “But it’s a lot of fun. It’s the greatest thing in the world to get to travel around the world and play the music that you love with your friends. It’s a real privilege and that’s the way we all look at it.”

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