When Great Big Sea last crossed Canada for a tour, it was with modest intentions.
At the time, the Celtic-pop trio from St. John’s, N.L., was between studio records. As a result, its 2009 trek wasn’t expected to post record returns, even though the group knew its long-standing fans would turn out in support.
Then the unexpected happened. Record audience tallies came rolling in, to the delight and surprise of everyone in the group. “In terms of audience numbers, that was the biggest tour we’d had in our entire career,” said Bob Hallett, who co-founded the group. “That was amazing, considering we’re 20 years in.”
The band is set to tour Canada once more this week, beginning with a kickoff date Saturday night in Victoria. And this time, there’s new product to promote.
While there is nothing exactly new about the music on XX, a two-disc greatest-hits compilation issued in October to celebrate the band’s 20 years together, there is a sense of discovery attached to it, Hallett said.
The group had always fought requests for a hits compilation, both from its fans and record label. But in the absence of new music to release, the trio (which also features Sean McCann and Alan Doyle) figured it was an opportune time to cull a collection of material that covered all facets of its career.
The standard edition features the group’s hits (including Run Runaway, When I’m Up (I Can’t Get Down), Ordinary Day, and Consequence Free) alongside six previously unreleased songs. A deluxe edition brings out the big guns, offering another entire disc of B-sides, along with a documentary DVD.
Offering something of value was the only way to get Great Big Sea on board with such a project, Hallett said.
The band wasn’t keen on patting itself on the back, despite what it has accomplished to date. Fawning over oneself isn’t encouraged back in St. John’s, where its members still reside.
That same peer pressure is what shaped the members of Great Big Sea into extremely down-to-earth people, it would appear. “One of the hallmarks of Newfoundland culture is the inability to take yourself seriously.” Hallett explained. “That was not just part of the music thing. Every day you went to school, somebody was taking the piss out of you. It never stopped from the minute you woke up to the time you went to bed.”
People back home in St. John’s, who were weaned on folk music, are forgiving folks, Hallett said. They will put up with your popularity as long as you honour the music, if not musicians, that helped get you there. No one had to spell that out for the group, Hallett said. There were daily reminders.
“That was the spirit of it for us. We were self-contained — we didn’t live in Toronto; we lived in St. John’s. Our crew was from Newfoundland, and our manager was from there, too. Everybody in our crew kind of got it. As a result, we were this self-contained cul-de-sac from St. John’s that drove around the world for 20 years. That prevented us from ever really acquiring the pretentiousness that we no doubt would have embraced if we had come from somewhere else.”
Newfoundland culture remains strongly rooted in the group. From its earliest incarnation, Great Big Sea always sat on the fence that separated traditional Celtic music from modern day pop and rock ’n’ roll. It has maintained the ability to satisfy both camps with its integrity intact.
With albums sales in the millions and 11 Juno nominations to its credit, not to mention a substantial, thriving fan base, there’s no looking back for the band.
For future endeavours, Hallett said the band will continue to rely, as it has done for years, on two key elements of the group — passion and pride.
“When you’re making records, particularly records for which there is a tremendous amount at stake, failure is always possible, if not imminent. In the early days, songwriting was not something that came naturally to us. We really struggled with it. Getting that side of it right almost killed us. But we didn’t want to suck. Our desire to do this right and be good, that drove us from Day 1. We’ve never run out of gas on that front.”
The underlying details of a performance — when, where and why — do not overly concern Great Big Sea at this stage. No matter the gig or what record they happen to be promoting, fans can count on their commitment.
That’s the way it has been for 20 years, Hallett said, and there’s reason to believe it will stay that way for 20 more.
“I feel bad for these kids placed in this huge spotlight when it’s the third time they’ve performed in public in their lives,” he said. “When we were in university and high school, this was our part-time job. It’s what we did to make money. We played in folk bands in little pubs, so by the time we played a show that mattered, we had probably played 1,000 gigs. The fearlessness that comes with that — the immunity to embarrassment in dubious circumstances — we had acquired that by then. So what really matters now is your ability to play good shows and entertain people. If you can do that, you might have half a shot at a music career.”
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. (doors at 6:30)
Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre
Tickets: $45.50, $59.50 and $85 (plus service charges) at 250-220-7777, the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre Box Office and selectyourtickets.com