Great Big Sea: “Ottawa Is Like Coming Home”

On the 20-year anniversary of touring the band’s East Coast folk music around North America, Great Big Sea is happily bringing the show back to the capital at Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest – one of the many seasonal festivals that have welcomed the legendary Canadian band with open arms. Whether the Tulip Festival, Jazz Festival or Canada Day – Great Big Sea believes Ottawa might be the place they’ve played the most outside of their native Newfoundland.

“In a weird way, Ottawa is kind of where we first became a big hit,” admits husky-voiced lead singer Alan Doyle. “Whatever the festival is that’s on in Ottawa, it seems our music fits the bill for them all.”

Scheduled to play the packed LeBreton Flats on July 12, the distinct nature of the enlivening experience is not lost on the outfit, two decades after their pub-playing inception.

“Being part of a festival that’s so big, so well organized and just technically perfect – it’s amazing,” says Doyle. “If you’re in a band and you’ve played all over the world, you wish that more festivals were like Bluesfest.”

The diverse festival crowd is also a perfect representation of what a typical Great Big Sea fan might look like – in that a typical Great Big Sea fan actually isn’t typical at all. According to the band, the best part of playing such engaging Celtic rock is that your toddler, teen and grandmother can enjoy the music to the same degree. Peering into the crowd in the heat of their upbeat, instrument-jammed set, founding band members Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett and Séan McCann are always in awe of the broad sweep – and dedication – of keen Great Big Sea followers.

“In 20 years, I’ve never seen such ageless audiences,” says Doyle. “I’ll recognize people out in those crowds from 15 years ago, but hey, now they’ve come with their kids. It’s a special thing.”

The fan base has remained as unwavering as the group’s steadfast pursuit of bringing jovial Newfoundland jigs to studios and main stages. Straight out of university and working odd jobs, the founding members assembled in St. John’s in 1993 to play popular cover songs, sea shanties and their own rock twist on traditional Newfoundland folk for the locals. The band’s energetic sounds commonly filled downtown pubs in Atlantic Canada all the while appealing to elders who appreciated the heritage music of the Coast. With gig numbers racking up and impressive independent record sales, the guys were quickly picked up by Warner Music Canada and they powered into high gear as one of the most recognizable faces of Canadian East Coast music.

“People just liked us,” Doyle muses. “More people than could fill a pub.”

And people still like the music, just the way it is. “I don’t think any of the normal pressures that are put on bands were ever really put on us,” says Doyle. “Record companies just sort of let us do our thing because our thing worked – and it’s worked for reasons that people had never seen before. Hell, there have been times when we’ve begged for direction and Warner would say, ‘Why change?’”

“You don’t hear that happening often,” he laughs heartily.

It helps too that Canadians have a remarkable appreciation for our cultural, geographic and musical diversity. Doyle agrees, “I don’t think there’s one country in the world that celebrates its regions more than Canada.”

He says that “For Great Big Sea, it was a blessing to grow up as singers in a place that had its own songs. Most traditional Newfoundland songs we don’t even remember learning; we were never even sat down and taught. But we know them, the same way people know how to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”

Whether it’s their solo albums, book deals, occasional stints on film or television thanks to their esteemed pals and acquaintances, the band hasn’t slowed down since the lads were twenty-something, driving from gig to gig in a station wagon and making $175 a week, without a care or responsibility outside of chasing the dream. Now the dream still lives on a-plenty, in a rigorously scheduled and surreal fashion.

“I’m proud of a lot,” says Doyle. “But the thing I’m the most proud of, outside of just keeping the band together, has been adapting to everything else that has come with real life – kids, cars, houses and families – all of those normal changes.”

He added that “Our friendship with each other has become family in itself, and sure, there are ups and downs in families. But it becomes like another arm, and a tour like this is a great excuse to pause and be grateful for each other.”

Great Big Sea will continue to take its powerful brotherhood across the US and Canada throughout the summer right until the end of 2013, still riding the release of last year’s XX – a double-disc album commemorating its anniversary with the favourites, the unheard and the covers. Any Great Big Sea fan knows the trio has a soft spot for a good cover song. Take R.E.M.’s End of the World, for example.The carefree song just spoke  to them. With the crew’s latest spin on Pete Townshend’s Let My Love Open the Door, they found that recognizable keyboard intro worked well on Bob’s accordion keys. Any good pub band knows that playing a legend’s classic song loaded with vigour is always a crowd pleaser.

Great Big Sea remains ecstatic about its big anniversary, which the band celebrated in St. John’s on April 27th, 2013.

“How lucky am I?” chuckles Doyle. “It’s an incredible thing to do for a weekend and I’ve done it my whole adult life.”

But things are a little different than they were back then.

“Right now, I’m standing in a parking lot in a huge American city, watching a crew of nice people load our gear into a theatre. You know, 20 years ago for me and all over the world right now with any young band – the simpler pleasure would be not to have to lug your own shit around. Well, I am pretty lucky because I have not carried my own shit since 1994. I should be over the whole thing, I really should… but I’m not. Every bit of this is an amazing ride.”