When you’ve been touring for 20 years, there are not many kinds of street food you haven’t tried.
From Belgian waffles and fries, Australian meat pies with green peas, and corn cobs in Slovakia, the guys of Great Big Sea have tasted the world, one food cart at a time.
“I remember in Poland, I bought chicken from a guy with a rotisserie cart,” Alan Doyle said.
“He took a chicken and cut it in half, and put half in the bag. Then he looked at me and said something, and it must have been the universal words for, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ because I understood what he was saying and nodded, before I knew what I was doing. He had these slabs of potatoes underneath the chicken in the rotisserie and he scooped some out, put it in the bag with the chicken, dumped in some salt, shook the bag and handed it to me. I almost went back for another one later on.”
Of the three boys — Doyle, Bob Hallett and Sean McCann — McCann has the strongest stomach, and will try anything.
“The more gross it is, the more Sean enjoys it for the bravado,” Hallett said, telling a story about a tub of snail salad.
The guys will prepare to take to the road again in the new year, on an extensive, five-leg tour in support of their latest greatest hits release, the “XX” box set, and in celebration of their 20th anniversary.
Released Oct. 30, “XX,” which is available as either a two-disc collection or a four-CD and one DVD box set with plenty of photos and other blasts from the past, took just two weeks to go gold — an even cooler feat in the day and age of iTunes than in 1995, when they earned their first gold record, Doyle and Hallett said.
“Especially considering it’s a collection of music, with the expection of five or six songs, that people probably already have,” Doyle added.
One disc in the set includes Great Big Sea’s biggest hits, with all the tunes you’d expect — “Ordinary Day” and “Run Runaway” included — while a second disc includes some of the band’s traditional and folk songs. “Mary Mack,” “Lukey” and “Old Black Rum” are, as expected, all included, and so are five new and unreleased songs. The limited edition set also consists of a movie, edited by McCann, featuring early backstage moments and general foolishness, as well as a special book and posters, stickers, lyric sheets and other memorabilia.
Doing a greatest hits set wasn’t meant as a way for the guys to take a trip down memory lane and, Hallett said, they originally didn’t want to do it.
“We sort of felt like the new things we were making were more interesting to us than the nostalgia exercise of the greatest hits. I think we still feel like that, really,” he explained.
“The biggest reason (we did it) was that we’ve come to the end of our contract with Warner Music, and not that we’ve left the company or had a falling out, but the end of that deal contained the option to have a greatest hits record, and they really wanted to do it. We sort of felt like, OK, this is not unreasonable after 20 years.”
The “new things” Hallett spoke about have been plentiful. Between Great Big Sea projects and gigs, the guys each have their own solo careers: Hallett is a writer with a published memoir, “Writing out the Notes: Life in Great Big Sea,” manages local talent through his company Garrison Hill Entertainment and is co-owner of Erin’s Pub, with Chris Andrews of Shanneyganock. McCann has released two solo albums, “Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes” and “Son of a Sailor.”
Doyle just finished promoting the recent release of his debut solo album, “Boy on Bridge,” and has also taken up a career in acting. He’s currently working on the feature film “Winter’s Tale,” based on the 1983 novel by Mark Helprin, with his friend Russell Crowe, as well as Will Smith, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Connelly and William Hurt.
Once they got into the old material, it was hard to stop, Hallett said. Every time he opened a closet or pulled an old laptop out of a box, there was another pile of stuff to go through.
Great Big Sea has had a successful 20 years, but it hasn’t come without some roller coaster rides. The Irish Descendants saw success the same time GBS did, and there weren’t really any other similar-type groups that had paved the way. Hallett and Doyle said they often felt like the underdogs, and joked about their stack of Junos they have just lying around (they’ve had 11 Juno nominations, but no wins).
As soon as they saw moderate success in Canada — where they had the support of Newfoundlanders and Newfoundland expats and a Celtic craze on the go — they rolled into the U.S., where Hallett and Doyle said they had to start at zero.
Support of Newfoundlanders is still something the band cherishes.
“Without Newfoundland and without Newfoundlanders, there is no Great Big Sea,” Doyle said. “Great Big Sea is partly theirs. We’ve had not only the support of a nation, but the participation of a nation.
“It’s true for Great Big Sea and it’s true for Allan (Hawco) and Perry (Chafe) and the guys on ‘Republic of Doyle’ and it’s true for Mark (Critch) and Shaun (Majumder) and the ‘22 Minutes’ guys, and for Rick (Mercer) and a bunch of other people. I think because most of these people wear their heart on their sleeve so much, people honestly feel that they have a little part to do with it, and very legitimately, they do.”
The first leg of the “XX” tour begins in California in March, and although the whole tour hasn’t been announced, there are a few glaring omissions: St. John’s, for example.
The guys are also not doing their regular Boxing Day show at the Delta hotel in St. John’s for the second year in a row, explaining that, with a crew that aren’t all living here, it would mean they’d have to fly in for set-up on Christmas Day.
“It’s a very Ebenezer thing to do,” Doyle said.
Local shows won’t be left out of the tour, the guys explained, saying they have some “sneaky plans” for this summer.
When the shows happen, fans can expect the same enthusiasm that has earned Great Big Sea a “party band” reputation over the past 20 years. It’s what they love to do, Doyle said.
It might be what will earn them another box set.
“For our 30th anniversary, can we do “XXX,” Doyle said. “But we can’t call it that. We’ll have to call it “X Plus X Plus X or something.”