Great Big Sea | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Great Big Sea

Great Big Sea. Leading Canadian folk/pop group.

Great Big Sea

Great Big Sea. Leading Canadian folk/pop group. Named for a Newfoundland traditional song about a tsunami, the band was founded in St John's in 1993 by Newfoundland musicians Alan Doyle (vocals, guitar, bouzouki, mandola, mandolin, banjo), Bob Hallett (vocals, mandolin, mandola, bouzouki, banjo, fiddle, whistles, pipes, accordion, concertina), Sean McCann (vocals, guitar, tin whistle, bodhran, percussion), and Darrell Power (vocals, bass guitar, guitars, bones, mandola, harmonica). Hallett and McCann had previously founded the Celtic rock band Rankin Street in 1989, which was later joined by Power. Doyle (formerly of the duo Staggering Home) joined the trio in January of 1993. Under the name Great Big Sea, the new band forged an original style rooted in the melodies, rhythms, and timbres of Newfoundland traditional music. After Power's departure in 2003, the group added Toronto bassist Murray Foster (formerly of the band Moxy Fruvous) and Nova Scotia drummer Kris MacFarlane to the group.

Following a series of early performances in the popular George Street club district of St John's, the group released their self-titled debut album in August of 1993. With a growing reputation for engaging live performances built on extensive touring, the independent release received gold certification. In 1995 Great Big Sea was signed to a major record deal with Warner Music Canada. The resulting albums, Up (1995), Play (1997), Turn (1999), the live album Road Rage (2000), Sea of No Cares (2002), and Something Beautiful (2004), have all been certified gold (for 50,000 albums or singles sold) or platinum (for 100,000), a rare distinction for a group specializing in traditional music. Five of these albums debuted in the Top 10 on Canadian sales charts and Sea of No Cares debuted in the No. 1 position. Rant and Roar (1998), a compilation of recordings from Up and Play, was released in the US by Sire Records. Great Big Sea has been featured in television specials on the CBC in Canada and PBS in the US, and several of the band's songs appeared in the Hollywood feature film The Shipping News. In 2003 the group released the Great Big DVD, a career-spanning compilation of concert footage, music videos and interviews.

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).

See Folk Music, Anglo-Canadian


Great Big Sea. 1993. NRA Productions CD NRA3-1002

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

Further Reading