By Jane Roser
“My parents didn’t own a car, but they did have a guitar, an accordion, and a piano. So I’d like to thank my parents for having their priorities straight,” musician Alan Doyle explains gratefully.
Canadian singer-songwriter Alan Doyle is on a roll. He’s currently on tour playing sold out shows, including the Sellersville Theater earlier this month. His high-energy, engaging concerts are always a big draw.
I was lucky enough to catch both the Sellersville and DC shows, both very diverse, and included traditional Newfoundland songs, sea shanties, cover songs, rock, and roll, as well as tunes from Doyle’s tenure with iconic Canadian band Great Big Sea. Audience participation abounded, two birthdays were celebrated, and one couple got engaged. Seriously, no one does it better than Alan Doyle and his Beautiful Band.
“For me, touring has always been the most enjoyable part of the music business,” says Doyle. “I got into it because I wanted to travel and play shows for people. Getting to visit a new part of the world to play music is always such a thrill for me. We played our first ever gig in Oklahoma [on this tour]. It was a legendary music hall in Oklahoma City called the Blue Door and you could just feel the history from decades of concerts performed there.”
When I asked about the Sellersville Theater, which he’s played for decades starting with Great Big Sea, Doyle’s fondness of the venue shines through. “The history of the place is apparent the moment you walk in,” he observes. “You feel like you’re in a place that a great vaudeville show would’ve been in and you’re adding to a part of a continuous history. We love Philly, it’s always a thrill to play there.”
Doyle spent two decades as one of the lead singers of Great Big Sea, known for combining traditional Newfoundland music with pop sensibilities. The band’s nine albums, double-disc hits retrospective, and two DVDs have sold over 1.2 million copies in Canada alone.
Last year, Doyle was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s second highest order for merit, and specifically, “for his contribution to the musical traditions of his home province and for his commitment to numerous charitable initiatives.”
The charitable organization Doyle founded with Dr. Andrew Furey and Brendan Paddick encourages folks to donate a dollar or more a day. The funds raised sponsor programs and facilities which help people suffering from mental health issues and addiction get the treatment they need. It’s called A Dollar A Day Foundation and you can donate here.
Never one to sit still, Doyle spent 2017 recording his third solo album, A Week at The Warehouse, and putting the finishing touches on his book, A Newfoundlander In Canada: Always Going Somewhere, Always Coming Home, the follow-up to his best-selling 2014 memoir, Where I Belong.
Turning to Great Big Sea bandmate Bob Hallett to help jog his memory of their early days of touring, the book is a treasure trove of the band’s beginnings and early gigs playing pubs and at least one dance hall in Stephenville.
“One story was this crazy gig we got early on. It was a huge three-day festival in central Newfoundland,” says Doyle. “Our set was over by 5:00-6:00 PM and the rest of the day was ours, so we celebrated and realized way too late that, that evening that we’d been contracted to come back early the next morning and open for Barney the Dinosaur. And of course, it was a disaster, but later on I couldn’t find any evidence that it had actually happened, only had this hazy memory of it. So I asked Bob and he said, “‘dude, it was horrible.'”
After catching our breath from laughing at these tour stories, I ask Doyle about the new album, which was recorded last year at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver. Doyle worked with famed producer Bob Rock (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Michael Bùble) and features guest vocals by Paul Hyde (Payola$, Spirit of the West).
“I learned a lot from him [Bob Rock],” Doyle begins. “One thing he taught me is that nothing trumps the song. Whatever arrangement, set up, serves the song best, is what you should do. Often times in the music business you consider doing a song a certain way because it might serve a radio station better. And Bob very quickly said that we’ll be served best if we serve the song and he’s such a fan of music from different genres, so it was a real thrill to get to work with him.”
Every song, save two, were expressly written for the album. The song “Close to the Sun” was written by Doyle six or seven years ago and never made it into any records, but his band (Kendel Carson, Cory Tetford, Todd Lumley, Shehab Illyas and Kris MacFarlane) loved it, so they started playing it at live shows. The track “Bully Boys” is a sea shanty that Doyle wrote in 2009 when he played one of the Merry Men in the Russell Crowe film “Robin Hood.” When deciding which songs to include on the album, Rock asked Doyle if he had any Celtic-style or sea shanty songs.
“I told him I had this one song I wrote for a movie, but I couldn’t remember all of the lyrics, only the chorus. So I went back to the hotel to try to find it on my computer. I couldn’t, so I went on YouTube to see if I could at least find the film scene. I found it very quickly, but I also found dozens of other versions of ‘Bully Boys’ like from Croatia, England, and America. It was incredible to me because that song had never been performed or recorded in its entirety ever. People had heard a snippet of a verse and the chorus in that scene and then made the rest up themselves. They made their own versions, which is incredible because that’s exactly how sea shanties would have made their way around the world.”
Another song that has been very popular with Doyle’s audiences is “Beautiful To Me.” It was inspired to be a response to the discriminatory Bathroom Bill that North Carolina passed a few years ago.
“It all just seemed so backward, aggressive, and mean,” laments Doyle, “and it pissed me off, so I wanted to write a song that explained that my concerts and my doors are open to everyone. I don’t want you to hide who you are. Just come to my concerts and you can be yourself.”
Besides writing songs with a large, important cultural message, Doyle mentions that the more songs he writes, the more content he is to write about small things, as well. “Like right now I’m leaning on a red brick wall and I’m thinking…what a cool song that would be. Just have your songs be a little slice of your life, you know? I love it when a song is about something so specific and small, then becomes universal. I love those moments.”
On Sunday evening, I attended Doyle’s packed show at The Hamilton in Washington, D.C. with my friend Ronalda. She told me that Doyle is “an old soul in a modern man. His inspirations must come from Newfoundland lore, yet they reverberate in everyone.”
If you’re interested in seeing his live show, be sure to join his email list to stay updated about upcoming performances and all things Alan Doyle.