Preparing for an interview with Great Big Sea can bring back a lot of memories of grade school. Not fond recollections, mind you, but ones of doing those reports on a faraway place about which you care little and whose name you can't even spell.
"I'm so glad to hear you have a map in front of you," Alan Doyle says. "Most interviews begin with, 'So, where is Newfoundland, anyway?'"
Newfoundland is Canada's youngest province, having joined the dominion in 1949. It's also, along with the Yukon at the opposite end of the continent, the nation's most isolated province. Most of its residents live on the Isle of Newfoundland, which juts into the Atlantic Ocean to make it the easternmost point in North America. It has an average temperature of 60 degrees in July. It's also the home of folk-rockers Great Big Sea, one of the hottest acts in Canada.
Great Big Sea is Doyle, a guitar player who also does most of the singing, Sean McCann on the bodhran, Bob Hallett on fiddle and accordion, and Darrell Powers on bass. They and about 100,000 other people, about one-sixth of the province, live in Saint John's, the only large city in Newfoundland. They'll bring their rowdy foot-stomping, party-down traditional sound to Peabody's April 22.
Great Big Sea is as appropriate a name as can be for a quartet that's become the leading ambassador of Newfoundland culture. Almost all Newfies, as they're called, make their livings from the ocean, either catching or canning fish, trapping and packing lobsters, or serving those industries. Check the names of the villages. Most end in words like bay, river, harbour, cape, and cove. "I believe I can give you a statistic," Doyle says. "Something like 85 percent of all Newfoundlanders live within a mile and a half of the seashore. That's walking distance."
When biologists warned a couple of years ago the schools of cod off Newfoundland were becoming depleted, and the Canadian government had no choice but to put limits on the number of the fish that could be caught, Newfoundland took one on the chin. "Some of those tiny villages you see on your map depend solely on fishing," Doyle explains. "Imagine if a factory closes down in your city in Ohio. There's another big factory town less than two hours away. In Newfoundland, you can't just get on an interstate highway and be in Toronto in a few hours. Some of those villages had to almost close down."
Toronto is 3,000 kilometers, or about 1,900 miles, away from Saint John's. Cleveland is closer to Albuquerque than that. Although a narrow strait separates the northwest tip of the island from the mainland, once you're off it, you have almost a day's drive through a wilderness before you reach Quebec City, the first decent-sized burg west of the maritime provinces. A ferry from Saint John's to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, which sails only in the summer anyway, takes seven hours. A shorter boat ride can be made on a ferry leaving from the southwestern end of the island, but that requires a lengthy auto trip across the island for most people.
But it's this isolation that has allowed a distinct musical culture to flourish in the province. Great Big Sea takes Celtic and English folk music, sailor songs, and self-penned love ballads and filters them all through rock and roll influences.
"We were the first generation to have rock music," Doyle says. "Our parents went thirty years before they had televisions. Even when they got them, there was as much European programming as Canadian. We are as close to Ireland as we are to Ontario. But we were the first to watch Casey Kasem, and we loved it."
The members got together in Saint John's when each was attending Memorial University, Newfoundland's only provincial university, in the late 1980s. "We met in the vibrant Saint John's folk scene," Doyle explains. "We were the four most ambitious of the 25 or thirty folk musicians around the city, so we sort of gravitated to each other."
The maritime provinces, particularly Nova Scotia, actually have had a lively folk music scene for years. Nova Scotia recently has given the world fiddle wizards like Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster, and the family folk band the Rankins. "Nova Scotia's folk tradition is principally Scottish," Doyle says. "In Newfoundland it's more of a melting pot. We are the first stop on the sea route from Europe. We have English, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, and French mixed with native Canadian cultures."
Helping Great Big Sea become popular in the Canadian heartland (the album Up went triple platinum last year in the band's native country) has been the East Coast Music Awards, an annual event that has been honoring all Eastern recording artists regardless of genre. But in a folk-heavy area, it's been the acoustic musicians who have most benefited from the publicity. Great Big Sea cleaned up at the 1998 awards, taking home six of them.
"The record labels didn't come looking for us or Ashley or Natalie," Doyle says. "They just could not ignore us. They couldn't understand how artists like us from so far away were selling so many records without getting played on the radio.
"But they've done a surprisingly good job. We wondered how record company executives in Toronto would understand a folk-rock group in Newfoundland, but they've let us handle the music end of things, and they've handled the business end. And we're happy that Canada has embraced Newfoundland culture."
Great Big Sea, with Stephen Fearing and Wish. 8 p.m., Thursday, April 22, Peabody's DownUnder, 1059 Old River Road, the Flats, $10 ($12 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.