Great Big Sea founder and lead vocalist Bob Hallett was still shaking off the airline rattles when we caught him earlier this week, back in the Maritimes after a victory-celebration gig in Vancouver, the Friday before the Olympics went off the air. Y’know, you can be one of the biggest bands in Canada and get invited to do a show in front of a zillion-strong TV audience at the Olympics, but slim chance getting a ticket for the hockey finals.
“Most of the events I was interested in … like, the hockey game, forget it. They were pretty rare to come by. I mean, they started at a fair price, but pretty quickly they went into the ‘secondary market,’ shall we say. That Sunday morning, rumor had it they were changing hands for five grand. But if you’re a Canadian hockey fan, you’re like, ‘OK, you can stop now … that’s about as good as it gets.’”
But if the gig was a good thing, it was hardly a surprise, as the organizers lined up most of Canada’s big artists (Barenaked Ladies, Alanis, etc.) for their shot at some high-ratings TV exposure. It’s the kind of thing that an American might not really appreciate, that whole “national musical treasure” thing (hey, The Who played the Super Bowl), especially in a country like Canada that spans five time zones but typically bears its national colors with low-slung subtlety. Hallett is more or less used to it, of course, as the band has had a dozen or more hits in Canada over its 15-year career.
“It’s more amusing than anything else, and the reality of it is that it’s a tribute, y’know? When people embrace you in that sense, you kind of can’t belittle it. It comes from a real honest impulse. Canadians are nowhere near as patriotic or forthright about it as Americans as a rule, so when they embrace anything under a nationalistic impulse, it’s unusual.”
And undoubtedly, some of that stems from GBS’ unique blend of broad, rumbling, heroic rock staples — the triumph of the little guy, big horizon appeals to love and devotion — alongside healthy samplings of Celt-draped maritime folk music from Labrador and their hometown of St John’s, Newfoundland. Boozy laments about the rolling-pin wife at home, and odes to a fine day chasing the schools across the elegantly sinister North Atlantic are the norm. “Good drinkin’ music,” as an online friend characterized it. It’s the kind of roots/contemporary balancing act that sounds logical on paper, but isn’t always easy to rescue from the perils of sinking under its own earnestness; most of the guys on this side of the border wisely avoid it. Show of hands — can we imagine Tom Petty growling through some obscure Delta blues howl, or Springsteen going all high lonesome on a Bill Monroe number? On virtually every album? (And no, Bon Jovi playing country doesn’t count.)
And it’s not just the case that GBS channels this stuff through osmosis. The band has sewn together a community of rabidly loyal fans, on both sides of the border, who can sniff out jive filler just like that. It’s both a blessing, when you have fans that are actually listening, and a gravitational influence on what you’re doing every time you go into the studio to cut a new release. How much trad do we do? How much radio rock do we do? Who are we this time around? We wondered if Hallett and the band — Alan Doyle and Sean McCann from the founding unit, with Ontarian Murray Foster and Nova Scotian Kris MacFarlane — actually try to consider that when they record. Or do they just follow instinct?
“To some degree, we kind of have to [follow our instincts]. If you don’t just live in the moment and let the songs go where they want, it is very easy to repeat yourself. We’re pretty ruthless about not doin’ that. If we’re doin’ something and somebody says, ‘Hey, this sounds a lot like blah blah blah from 1995,’ out it goes. Or, we tear it down to the floor and start again. “I think the difference between the Canadian fans and the American fans is, if anything, the Canadian fans are probably a little bit more forgiving, because they’ve stayed with us through this fairly wandering creative path of ours. Most of our American fans came to the table later in the day, certainly within the last decade or so, where some of our Canadian fans have been with us since 1992.
“The reality is that the American fans see our music and Newfoundland folk music as being one and the same, since their only exposure to Newfoundland folk music is through Great Big Sea. So, our vision of this, which draws upon traditional music but is in no way an orthodox expression of traditional music at all, reaches different people in different ways. It just seems like different areas of the band speak to different audiences. But that’s also what keeps it interesting, too.”
GBS is just putting the finishing touches on a new release, due in June and two years downwind of Fortune’s Favour, the follow-up their endearingly salty all-trad The Hard and the Easy. While Favour was largely a commercial record, with big guitars and thundering beats and brave testimony hallmarking the CD, Hallett says the band is aiming for something a little smaller next time around.
“We’ve always had this sort of push and pull between traditional music and pop music, and the producer we had for that album was probably more excited by pop music than anything else, and we were in turn excited by his vision, so it kinda went in that direction. I think this record is more a harkening back to our earlier records, at least sonically. The material’s sort of all over the place, as usual, but the sort of sounds we use … there’s not as much aggressive electric guitar this time around.” But ultimately for Hallett, the key is the stage show, which got its start in the sticky-floored watering holes of St John’s and Halifax.
“For us, the albums are sort of a calendar. It’s a way of dividing time. What’s really important is the performance, where you engage people one on one. “And it’s not hard for us to be engaged by it. I mean, I hear people complainin’ about the road or whinin’ about the bus, and I go, ‘Man, this is your career. If you’re complainin’ about this, you ought to go home and get a job at the mall.’ To be able to go to a place like Boulder, play to a sold-out theater with hundreds of people singing your own songs back to ya, considering where we started so long ago, it’s amazing. And the novelty of that moment has never worn off for us.”
Great Big Sea plays the Boulder Theater on Friday, March 12, and Saturday, March 13. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $34. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.