Sea farers

Newfoundland group melds the traditional with the contemporary

Sep 30, 2009 at 5:00 am
Great Big Sea cut its teeth in the seafaring town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Great Big Sea cut its teeth in the seafaring town of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

You don’t live that far away.

Really, you don’t.

Far away is St. John’s, a city of 250,000 people in Newfoundland, Canada, an island sectioned off from North America both geographically and, in a sense, culturally.

If you grow up there, as Great Big Sea lead singer Alan Doyle did, you learn fishing, seafaring and the sailor hymns that accompany the island. You learn the Atlantic as body of water, and as continuous, undulating muse.

“If you’re a songwriter, and you grow up by the sea, it’s hard not to write songs about the sea. You’re kind of drawn to it,” Doyle says by phone. “We’re from a seafaring place — the romance that kind of defines you’re songwriting life: the ocean and the fishermen and the coming and going and the losses and triumphs at sea.”

Doyle grew up in Petty Harbor, 30 kilometers south of St. John’s. His parents were semi-professional musicians — Mom played organ in the church choir, Dad in an Irish pub band.

Doyle’s childhood was filled with traditional songs and singing. Much of Newfoundland’s history is passed down through generations via song, burrowing their way into his DNA. “It’s like when did you learn to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ You didn’t. You just always knew it. It comes with the birth certificate.”

Great Big Sea coalesced out of a group of 40 or 50 musicians gigging in the St. John’s pub scene. Bob Hallett, Sean McCann and Doyle were the diehards. Touring was a logistical nightmare: Halifax, the next closest mainland city, is a 20-hour drive and eight-hour ferry ride. “We had to present ourselves from day one as an ambitious lot,” Doyle says.

Touring the United States earned them the attention of Sire Records’ impresario Seymour Stein, by now legendary for signing Talking Heads and Madonna. The group’s combination of a cappella arrangements mixed with modern influences makes for an intriguing set. “We might be the only band where you see two accordions playing at the same time,” Doyle says.

Great Big Sea plays Wednesday, Oct. 7, at the Bomhard Theater (501 W. Main St., 562-0100, Doors open at 7:30 p.m. for the all-ages show. Tickets are $25-$30.

Private Ryan

Restless New Mexican Ryan Bingham and his band, Dead Horses, play at Gerstle’s (3801 Frankfort Ave., 742-8616, on Saturday, Oct. 3. Showtime is 9 p.m., $10. Bingham’s new record, Roadhouse Sun, is out on Lost Highway. Ryan, shall we?

LEO: Pedal steel or lap steel?
Ryan Bingham: Pedal steel.

LEO: Pickup or hatchback?
RB: Hatchback.

LEO: Dalton or Wade Garrett?
RB: Jeff Healey playing guitar behind the chicken wire.

LEO: Lubbock or Austin?
RB: Austin.

LEO: Fedora or 10-gallon?
RB: Top hat.

LEO: Banjo or mandolin?
RB: Kazoo.

LEO: Einstein or Newton?
RB: Einstein.

LEO: Fastball or curveball?
RB: Slider.

LEO: Hot or cold?
RB: Lukewarm.

LEO: Contra or Super Mario?
RB: I’d rather play outside.

Music Cast

Bay Area bluesmen Rick Estrin & The Nightcats celebrate the release of their debut, Twisted, at Stevie Ray’s Blues Bar (230 E. Main St., 582-9945) on Tuesday, Oct. 6. Rick joins us by phone. Listen at Bluegrass Catastrophe,