Great Big Sea has waves of fans

By Larissa Gula

Folk tales and music don’t just make a great accompaniment for bedtime — they make a fantastic career for performers. Great Big Sea

Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St.

Sept. 23 at 8 p.m.


Folk tales and music don’t just make a great accompaniment for bedtime — they make a fantastic career for performers.

Taking modern rock styles and combining them with folk songs the members grew up with, Great Big Sea creates a sound that both attracts audiences and creates cultural diversity. The band has been performing since 1993, gaining popularity in Canada, Europe and the United States alike.

“The thing is we’ve had two careers — one in Canada and one in America and Europe,” band member Bob Hallett said. “They’re different. The career in Canada began with a craze for this kind of music. Our music videos got played and we went on shows. We acquired physical rock stardom where people recognized you. In America, we began as a pulp band and proceeded to gather a following under the radar of the national media. It’s two different worlds.”

Hallett sings and plays a variety of instruments for the band, from a fiddle to a tin whistle and an accordion. The instrument line-up immediately sets the band apart from others.

“We’re not really a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Hallett said. “We use traditional music as the basis for our music. It’s our starting point for languages and rhythms. The deal is, we create a seamless thing between what we wrote and what we grew up with.”

Hallett and his fellow bandmates have been performers for a long time, staying in a band that originally started as an experiment of sorts.

“It was a post-university employment project,” Hallett said. “It was our part-time job in college — playing traditional music. When we graduated we could proceed into whatever careers available. We’d been doing this a long time and had evolved, so we gave ourselves two years to see where we wound up.”

And the band just kept on going. Hallett and his fellow musicians, Sean McCann, Alan Doyle, Kris MacFarlane and Murray Foster never felt the desire to leave the field, and over the years they changed and evolved to keep up while holding onto their original ideas.

“You can’t ignore what’s on the radio and around you, and doing this we’ve gotten to know new people,” Hallett said. “Their approach seeps in. If you have an idea these days, there’s no box and no idea that can’t be improved upon. The idea is to create an ever-evolving thing. We began in a specific spot, but that can expand in any direction.”

Hallett enjoys traveling and performing in new places and can’t complain about the advent of new technologies.

“Recording has gotten easier because it’s not required to go to an expensive studio to make a record,” he said. “You can do it with a laptop. But performing is a chance to do something new every night. Our families were all sailors and travelers, so for me it’s happy to wake up somewhere new every day. I enjoy the constant motion.”

The Canadian celtic rock band will perform tonight as part of a Trust Series, hosted by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

The goal is to bring in an array of entertainment and complement a variety of traditional and experimental arts alike, said Veronica Corpuz, director of public relations.

“When we program events like Great Big Sea, we look for quality of music and how well they’ll attract an audience,” she said. “We think that the type of music they perform and their success internationally helps to make the cultural mix robust.”

Great Big Sea has performed in Pittsburgh before and was popular then as well, she remembered.

“I think the kind of music they play is so resounding and vibrant. It’s uplifting and fun,” Corpuz said. “It’s the kind of music that mixes genres in a seamless way. It’s dynamic. It’s really explicit.”

When writing band music for performances, three of the band members collaborate and compromise, but after a song is put together it has many more challenges to pass.

“Everyone is musically prolific but we aren’t the kind of band where, if we wrote it let’s do it,” Hallett said. “It has to survive the opinion of everyone who hears it. It’s an ongoing process. That’s where it gets difficult. It’s easy to write a song, not easy to convince everyone it’s good enough.”

Hallett considers the band fortunate to have a rock solid fan base and an idea of what it intends to do as the music industry changes and the Internet remains a new tool.

“In many ways when we started, we followed a conventional model with a record deal,” he said. “On one end, major labels fund and create rock stars. They’re marketing muscles. They aren’t doing that anymore. It’s difficult to see where new rock stars are coming from. On the other hand, the Internet offers a huge opportunity. If you’re diligent, you can create your own fan base. The whole world is now open to you. It’s good and bad, and for a lot of artists it depends on where they are in their career. We were well-established so we could expand on a healthy fan base.”

But that doesn’t eliminate certain risks that go with traveling. Bad flights, bus accidents and the occasional loss of money have left a bad taste in Hallett’s mouth; but he’s stuck with music this long for a reason.

“There’s always something going wrong, but when you get an hour and a half of people living your songs, it’s worth it,” he said.