Playing its first official concert in 1993, Newfoundland’s Great Big Sea would become one of the most successful groups in Canadian music. Selling over a million and a half records worldwide over its twenty-year history, the folk-rock band resonated with fans for its rock interpretations of traditional Newfoundland folk songs and sea shanties.
If you’re a fan of nostalgia and tribute shows, this is the best tribute show you will see this decade, because no one is more credible to do a Great Big Sea tribute show than Séan McCann. – Séan McCann
When Séan McCann, who founded the band alongside Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett, announced he was leaving Great Big Sea following its 20th-anniversary tour in 2013, he stepped away from the musical limelight as he dealt with alcoholism, wrote a book chronicling his early life and his battle with addiction, and would become an advocate for other victims as a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest.
While facing his demons, McCann would go on to a successful solo career in his own right. However, his time as a member of Great Big Sea was never far, as he continued to play music from the band’s impressive catalogue alongside his own music.
Now, thirty years after the band formed, McCann is on the road with his trusted acoustic guitar sidekick “Old Brown” in a solo tribute to Great Big Sea’s greatest hits after approaching the other members of the group about reuniting following “two years of house arrest” because of COVID.
“I honestly felt that at the end of COVID, we’d all want to be back together again and that the world would become united like the old Coca-Cola commercial, singing in perfect harmony,” says McCann.
Despite the differences that the members of Great Big Sea had over the years, McCann reached out to his former bandmates and asked them if they wanted to reunite for a show to mark the band’s 30th anniversary.
“Given the state of the world with things being so polarized and an abundance of violent conflicts, those differences for me, certainly after two years of house arrest, seemed relatively small, and people need something to bring them together,” he says. “And that’s what [Great Big Sea] used to be really good at, so the 30th anniversary of the band seemed like a great reason to do it.”
Despite what McCann saw as a unique set of circumstances to bring his former bandmates together to mark the milestone, it wasn’t enough to make it happen.
“People were busy, and I understand that people have stuff to do,” he says. “So I thought, well, I can sing pretty good and if you’re going to do a tribute show, I’m probably the most credible musician out there to do a Great Big Sea tribute act so I decided to wave the flag myself.”
And while McCann was initially nervous about how audiences would receive a solo tour featuring the music of Great Big Sea, he hasn’t looked back.
“And you know what? It has been great fun, and I’m glad I did it,” he says. “And the best thing that happened is that I’m never alone because a band shows up every night, and that’s the audience. They know more words than I do, and if I falter on a verse, I needn’t worry because the front row’s got me.”
Audience participation is very much on brand for Great Big Sea.
“These songs were anthemic, and were always big singalongs,” says McCann. “I’ve always had a big voice, and I’ve got a lot of energy, but what amazed me was that it’s just like a Great Big Sea show from the first song, with the audience on their feet singing with all their hearts.”
It helps that McCann has chosen a set list of the band’s biggest hits. “I relearned some 200 songs, including the B sides and the weird and quirky ones, but at the end of the day the audience wants the hits and this show is all about the hits,” he says.
With so many to choose from, though, McCann also enlisted the help of his two boys, aged 15 and 17, who are too young to remember much about the band.
“Most of the time when I was rehearsing at home, they got annoyed, but now and then they would say that song is a banger, which apparently means a good thing,” he says. “So those songs became keepers.”
For those who may expect McCann to perform from his discography as a solo artist, for this show, at least, it is not the case.
I resisted the indulgence to slip in my material. This year’s tour is all about Great Big Sea. This was the time to wave the flag, and I know it’s had a very positive effect on many fans, including myself as the band’s biggest fan.
“I resisted the indulgence to slip in my material,” he says. “This year’s tour is all about Great Big Sea. This was the time to wave the flag, and I know it’s had a very positive effect on many fans, including myself as the band’s biggest fan.”
As many tribute shows before it, while McCann’s tour has attracted audiences who grew up with Great Big Sea in its heyday, he also sees a younger generation in the audience as parents and grandparents introduce them to the music.
“But this has always been the case,” he says. “We may have been the country’s biggest bar and party band, but we always had young kids who loved us. We used to get videos of little kids in kindergarten singing The Old Black Rum, which was funny but disturbing at the same time. But there was something about the rhythm and the beats that little kids loved. And now I’m seeing younger kids at shows all the time. It’s like the third generation, which is encouraging because it tells me that the music will live longer than we ever will.”
As for the future, McCann says his path forward remains unclear as it becomes more and more difficult for independent solo artists to survive.
“That’s another conversation, but what I do know is I never quit,” he says. “So I’ll find a way. I’ll be the last one standing out there, but choosing that path has never been more difficult.”
Who knows, McCann’s path may eventually lead him to a day if or when the band reunites.
“I think that the opportunity may have passed, but my message to Alan [Doyle] was that I’ll remain available to do it and if he ever feels like he wants to do a show, then the door’s open,” he says.
However, if or when a reunion tour happens, McCann relishes revisiting Great Big Sea’s music catalogue alone.
“If you’re a fan of nostalgia and tribute shows, this is the best tribute show you will see this decade, because no one is more credible to do a Great Big Sea tribute show than Séan McCann,” he concludes.
Séan McCann Sings the Great Big Songbook as part of the 2023 Halifax Urban Folk Festival on September 28. Visit halifaxurbanfolkfestival.com for more information.