Great Big Sea is a prominent Canadian Celtic rock band from Newfoundland and Labrador. “The Rock,” as it’s affectionately known, is Canada’s easternmost province and its newest, having joined confederation in 1949. It’s an area whose heritage, strongly maritime, is rooted in Scottish, Irish, and Cornish culture. Unlike its Maritime neighbors to the south whose influence is dominantly Scottish, Newfoundland enjoys a stronger Irish ascendancy. Its musical traditions naturally reflect those roots, with sea shanties and other sailing songs prominent.
Great Big Sea is easily the best known latter-day Canadian musical group trading on this heritage. Their updated brand of Celtic traditional music, alongside original songs written in that vein, introduced the sound to fresh (and frequently young) ears; the Celtic bent made it different from the radio-friendly status quo, while the punked-up beat made it fun to dance to in the mosh pit. Alan Doyle, Sean McCann, Darrell Power, and Bob Hallett first launched this musical tour-de-force in March 1993. Doyle and McCann made for charming and natural frontmen, and each of the band played a roster of modern and traditional instruments. Having cut their teeth as a pub-oriented band, their live shows were known for being high-energy and great fun, all the while technically proficient. In the early days, they toured heavily, performing up to 300 nights a year.
“Mari Mac” is a product of those early days, and the group’s formidable energy can be felt in the song’s bones. Drawing on a Scottish folk song called “Mary Mack,” all four band members are credited for this arrangement. McCann delivers the rapid-fire vocals typical of a traditional patter song, and the accompanying video judiciously employs marionettes alongside early 90s fashion sensibilities. It’s one of four singles from the album Up, the band’s second record, and first on the Warner label, which is certified four times Platinum in Canada.
Following this record’s success, Great Big Sea churned out many a Celtic-influenced hit. Their music was consistently accessible and their live shows fun (which I can affirm that first-hand). They seemed to stand well apart from others in this vein, perhaps cutting the swath for Canada’s numerous Celtic-influenced bands to find favour with audiences. People like what they know, and Great Big Sea brought this sound to the people in a prominent way.
In late 2013, after a run of nearly 20 years, McCann parted with the band. Great Big Sea’s website continues to exist, but predominantly features members’ solo work. Whether they will ever perform live again is unknown, but they leave us with a distinctive and unique legacy, shaped and coloured by a thread of one of Canada’s old ethnic roots, but bringing it firmly bringing into the modern day. It’s a fine entry on this countdown chart.