I remember the day clearly. It was the 9th of Februrary, 2012 and I’d recently begun using Last.fm, a music recommendation service that takes note of the songs & artists you listen to and attempts to find other bands you might enjoy based on your listening patterns.
One of the first recommendations offered to me was a band I’d never heard of called Great Big Sea. The blurb on their Last.fm profile declared them to be a “Canadian folk-rock band from Newfoundland and Labrador, best known for performing energetic rock interpretations of traditional Newfoundland folk songs.” Straight away I was intrigued, given that I love the folk-rock genre and that they hailed from such a remote & faraway location you rarely hear about in the music world.
I quickly navigated to Youtube where I clicked through to one of their more recent releases, Nothing But A Song, an original tune from their 2010 album Safe Upon The Shore. It’s rare that a newly-discovered song resonates so well with me: I had a beaming smile on my face by the second bar and from the moment Alan Doyle’s captivating baritone made its passionate entrance, I can honestly say I was hooked.
I found the album on iTunes before the song had even finished. Over the next 49 minutes I embarked on one of the greatest journeys of musicianship and songwriting I’d been on – from the uplifting reflective opener of Long Life (Where Did You Go) to the hauntingly grievous title-track shanty that is Safe Upon The Shore; from the faith-restoring Good People to the comical cover of The Kinks’ Have A Cuppa Tea – and then there’s my personal favourite ballad, Yankee Sailor, the heartbreaking tale of a Canadian courtship torn apart by a wealthy & charismatic American seafarer, delivered with such an intensity and conviction that it brought shivers to my spine. These guys epitomised the type of music I loved.
And such began my musical love affair with Alan Doyle, Séan McCann and Bob Hallett, the mighty talented bunch of folk-rockers from the city of St John’s, Newfoundland who make up the core of Great Big Sea (that’s not to mention Darrell Power who retired in 2003, as well as Kris MacFarlane and Murray Foster who have been supporting members of the band since Darrell’s departure). Formed in 1993, the group today boast a discography of 9 studio albums (7 of which have made the top 10 in their home country), 3 live concert recordings, a plethora of singles and a lifetime’s worth of tour dates across Canada, the US and indeed the world.
Over the next six months or so I relished in getting my hands on the whole GBS back catalogue. I’d buy a new record of theirs on iTunes every couple of weeks and it never ceased to amaze me how each one held my attention and captured my imagination from start to finish. I was particularly impressed with how they were able to sustain such a positive, upbeat attitude while developing their musical style quite substantially over the years. They delivered a raw, traditional folk sound on their first few albums such as their self-titled Great Big Sea in 1993, Up in 1995, and 1997’s breakthrough record Play, before branching out to the more pop-inspired melodies of Sea Of No Cares and Something Beautiful in the early 2000’s.
They returned to their heritage in 2005, releasing an album entirely of traditional Newfoundland folk tunes called The Hard And The Easy. It’s been the greatest Great Big Sea discovery for me to date and it may just make the cut as my favourite album of all time. Each time I listen to it I feel richly immersed in Canadian maritime history made up of intertwining Irish, Scottish and French lineage; I’m transported to the ports, harbours and seaside communities along the Newfie coastline such as Tickle Cove, Harbour LeCou, Angle Pond & St John’s itself, and I’m carried away by stories of murderous captains, Arctic whalers, legendary horses and able young seamen both hard working & voyeuristic. Their two most recent albums Fortune’s Favour and the aforementioned Safe Upon The Shore yield a slightly more rock-influenced and heavily-produced characteristic which in my opinion, perfectly caps off nearly 20 years worth of recording.
Merely 2 months after first setting my ears upon Great Big Sea, I chanced to see in a local gig guide that they were about to embark on their first tour of Australia. I immediately booked a ticket and was lucky enough in April 2012 to catch their show at The Basement, an intimate venue in the heart of Sydney’s Circular Quay, where I was offered my first glimpse into exactly how energetic these guys really were in real life. Up until this point they were a barely-accessible folk band from the other side of the world, of whom I’d only ever heard a handful of recordings, but now here they were metres in front of me performing a killer set of in front of a devoted ex-pat Canadian audience. It was at that point I can say I officially became a devoted fan of Great Big Sea!
To give you an idea of exactly how much I’m into these guys, this is my graph of top 10 artists I’ve listened to since I began using Last.fm in early 2012, and the number of times I’ve played tracks by each of them:
Crazy huh?! As you can tell, their music has taken up a large portion of my life over the past few years. I even recorded my own little cover version of Safe Upon The Shore, and I namechecked them in a song I wrote a few months ago called I Wish I Lived In Canada.
Earlier this year I did actually go through with the decision to leave behind my job, home and life in Sydney, and embark upon a new adventure in Canada, where I have since settled in Toronto. There were a number of reasons why I chose Canada above other destinations, but one of them was for the opportunity to see Great Big Sea perform to a local crowd within their home country. And on the 28th of November 2013 I succeeded in ticking off the #1 entry to my Canadian bucket list, after catching Alan, Séan, Bob, Murray and Kris play a sold-out show as part of their XX tour at the General Motors Centre in Oshawa, around an hour east of Toronto.
It was an absolutely incredible performance that fulfilled my every wish, to the point where I couldn’t even sing along with the opening tunes Ordinary Day and The Chemical Worker’s Song because I was too overwhelmed 🙂
The one thing that strikes you about a Great Big Sea audience is that as soon as the band sets foot on stage, EVERYONE gets their arses up off their seat and claps/moves/dances/sings/screams their lungs out along with EVERY song. The vibe is indescribable, unlike any other show I’ve been to – and this is coming from a huge live music fan with very high expectations, having seen over 350 artists perform in my time.
I booked well in advance and as such, scored perfect seats in the centre of the auditorium, only 4 rows from the front of the stage. Highlights for me were Bob’s rousing a-capella rendition of Come And I Will Sing You, Alan’s kick-arse guitar solo in When I Am King, the chilling singalong harmonies of Séan’s classic, General Taylor, and the montage of fans projected onto the screen during the beautiful Good People. The two & a half hour show left not only me but the thousands-strong Oshawa crowd with a soul so uplifted that I doubt I’ll reach that level of musical contentment again for many years to come.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Séan announced that the XX tour will be his final with Great Big Sea. I’m extremely grateful I got to witness the GBS boys live in concert in Canada before Séan’s departure, and I wish him all the best with his upcoming endeavours.
I wanted to write this post not only to express my adoration for the band, but to hopefully inspire newcomers to check them out, and also as a way of saying a heartfelt thanks to each and every member of GBS over the years for giving us all the wonderful gift of music that truly changes lives for the better.
Whatever the future brings for Alan, Séan, Bob, Murray and Kris, one thing will remain for certain:
Great Big Sea fucking rock!
Have you got a Great Big Sea story to tell? Where did you first hear of them and what do they mean to you? I’d love to hear from any likeminded fans – feel free to leave a comment below!