"Great Big Sea is not a band you just go and see, or a cd you just listen to. Great Big Sea is something you have to do."
Lead singer Alan Doyle's description of his band might be simple, but it comes close to describing the phenomena that is Great Big Sea. Their records are renowned for drawing together disparate threads of folk and pop music, while their shows are a storm of powerful singing, driving rhythms and soaring melody. Critics are often at a loss to describe the unique appeal of the band, who have built a strong and enduring career by combining the traditional music of their isolated Newfoundland home with a myriad of pop influences. CMJ New Music focused on "the band's rich vocal harmonies" based around four part singing which ranges from the sophistication of the Beach Boys, to the bellow of sailor's shanties. Dirty Linen raved about "the best party band that ever picked up a fiddle", while the Washington Post described "an explosively joyful noise". Great Big Sea themselves refuse to be put in any boxes.
"We started with a simple idea - Newfoundland music was exciting and unique, and if we combined it with pop music, we could make something special," explains Doyle. "We've added instruments, and voices, and rhythms, and many, many different sounds, but our ideals have never changed."
Since the four original members started the band in March of 1993 as a post-university employment project, they have toured relentlessly, reveling in the joy of travel, and the challenge of bringing their music to first Canada, and then the rest of the world. From day one, it is the band's energetic concerts which have proven the base of their popularity.
"No one comes to a Great Big Sea show and just sits there," says Sean McCann, the band's other lead singer and master of the Celtic bodhran. "The whole point is to sing, dance, and clap along. The crowd is the show - we're just the hosts."
Having sold well over a million copies of their albums in Canada, where the band is signed to Warner Music Canada, the band continues to make major inroads into the USA, where their music is available on the prestigious Zoe/Rounder label. Their latest project is a career spanning DVD. Anchored by a full length concert, filmed before a rabid audience in Ottawa, it also includes numerous interviews and backstage highlights. Longtime fans, especially in the USA are pleased with the inclusion of all fourteen of the band's videos, which have finally been compiled in one place.
"It was amazing to look at all the old footage when we were putting this together," said Bob Hallett, the multi-instrumentalist who anchors the band's traditional folk side. "A touring band tends to live in the moment, always looking down the road, not back. We have gone through a music store's worth of instruments, and some really bad haircuts, among other things. It's astonishing to realize how much foolishness we have gotten away with."
Now a five piece act, with the addition of Kris MacFarlane on percussion, and Murray Foster replacing Darrell Power on bass, the band continues its hectic life of tours and recording. Currently, the band is busy laying tracks for their seventh release, in between concert dates in both Canada and the USA. Outsiders marvel at the band's energy, but Doyle has no trouble explaining where the band finds its bottomless reserves of inspiration and vigor.
"Some of the music we play is hundreds of years old. If you are going to write songs to compete with that, you have got to work really hard," he suggests. "Plus, standing on a stage listening to a crowd of people sing along with you is the greatest feeling in the world. You never get tired of that."