Alan Doyle yawns, long and deep, then profusely apologizes for it. The Great Big Sea frontman has just returned to his native Newfoundland from New York, where he was flown, spur-of-the-moment, to shoot a final scene in Grand Central Station for the upcoming big-screen version of Winter's Tale. Based on the beloved Mark Helprin tome, the film also stars box-office heavyweights Will Smith and Colin Farrell, as well as longtime chum Russell Crowe, with whom Doyle first starred in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood as the minstrel Allan A'Dayle.
Actually, Doyle's whole life has been a blur of late. He has a recurring role in the Canadian TV series Republic of Doyle. He's just issued his first solo album, Boy on Bridge, named for the very first acting credit he got as a kid growing up in Petty Harbour, where a film crew showed up to produce a killer whale flick. And yes, he and his old songwriting chum Crowe collaborate on a few cuts — "Perfect Excuse," "Light the Way," and the rollicking "I've Seen a Little" — which chime like more Bon Jovi-ish takes on gritty GBS folk-rock.
Currently, Doyle is on the road celebrating Great Big Sea's 20th anniversary, backing a 40-cut best-of anthology, XX, that's evenly divided into two discs: "Folk" and "Pop."
"It was more random than you might imagine," says the dry-witted 43-year-old. "We just very loosely categorized stuff, here, there and everywhere. But one of the coolest things about compiling all this stuff was, it was a brief moment of patting ourselves on the back. Like 'That's a good song. And that's a pretty good song. Hey — we've got 40 pretty good songs!' So I'm very thrilled that we could fill up that much of a box set — all killer, no filler, man!"
It's difficult to parse the unique, kinetic sound of Doyle and crew. Suffice to say that it owes a lot to the rugged Celt-settled coast of Newfoundland, where jigs and reels were part and parcel of winter get-togethers held in the warmest room of the house — the kitchen. As the communities revolved around fishing, sea chanteys played a big local role, as well. Which explains why GBS had its humble beginning in hardscrabble St. John's sailors pubs.
"Yeah, we were certainly born out of a rummy, sailor-town pub culture, no question," says Doyle. "And I'm so grateful for it. If your apprenticeship is in pubs like that, where there's a lot to compete with — fellas talking to fellas, fellas talking to girls, darts going on and pool tables? If you can win their attention? And keep it?" He pauses, chuckling. "I remember when we got to play our first theater, and all the seats were facing us. I was like 'Holy shit! This is easy! They're already looking at us — now we actually have to play and sing well!'"
Great Big Sea concerts are exuberant singalong celebrations that tend to draw a cult audience of primarily Canadian expats and diehard Yankee fans. "It's an interesting thing to have been playing for so long that people have the ideal concert in their mind before they get there," Doyle says. 'And it's just fun sometimes to go out there and fulfill it!"