Christmas doesn’t start without The Once
The Once are from left to right : Andrew Dale, Geraldine Hollett and Phil Churchill. The name of the group comes from a unique Newfoundland and Labrador phrase that means 'imminently.' People here say "I'll be there the once," meaning right away (photo by Leslie Woodford).
The first time I saw folk trio The Once, I was sitting in The LSPU Hall – the historic downtown theatre in St. John's – watching Feast of Cohen, an annual concert where local artists gather to perform their own versions of Leonard Cohen songs.
It was the very beginning of their career as a group. The Once was on stage, just the three of them and two instruments, and they sang Anthem. And my eyes widened and I barely moved or breathed. I was completely transfixed, as was every other person in the room that night.
The Feast of Cohen is almost as famous hereabouts as its namesake. I love Leonard Cohen, but sometimes, quite often, our local performers take his music and just make it that much better. It's almost inexplicable. To this day, The Once’s version of Anthem is still my favourite of their songs. And again, apologies Mr. Cohen, I really do love and respect you a lot, but I think I prefer their version to yours.
Photo by Renita Fillatre
The point is, The Once is amazing and for the last three years at the beginning of December, they’ve been bringing this amazingness to Gower Street United Church in St. John’s to perform a Christmas concert, which they call The Once and For All Christmas Time. The mix of great music, beautiful ambience, cookies, hot chocolate and cider is enough to kill the Grinch in anyone and always magically bestows a warm and fuzzy feeling of good cheer.
I went for my third time in three years just a couple of weeks ago, and as ever, I was blown away.
Along with their beautiful arrangements and heartfelt harmonies, the strength of the trio is Geraldine Hollett’s pure and powerful voice. The Once’s vocally-dominated melodies swoop from smooth softness to foot stomping drama in a flash, which makes them actually really suitable for singing Christmas music. I also find their own music (traditional and folky in style) lends itself really well to the festive season too.
Every year, the event includes a host, usually a local comedian, and a guest musician too. And everyone takes turns on the stage so the audience is kept on their toes, wondering what’s coming up next.
This year, veteran actor and funny man Rick Boland told some Christmas tales, one true (and hilarious), the other a famous piece of heartfelt fiction.
Andrew James O’Brien was the guest musician. By now, you’re probably sick of hearing me gush about music, so I won’t fawn all over him even though I want to. I’ll let you listen here or here and you can judge for yourselves. Fiddler Emilia Bartellas also accompanied on several songs. She’s with The Dardanelles, another fantastic local (traditional) group.
Photo by Sherman Downey
The Once sang a selection of tunes, some Christmas songs (good ones!) like The Holly She Bears a Berry and Coventry Carol (Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child ), as well as a range from their wonderful brand new (second) album, Row Upon Row of the People You Know. And they also, bless them, knowing how much their fans love Anthem, sang that one too. And of course, the sold out room (the third in a three-night run) went crazy afterwards.
Their first album, simply titled The Once, was actually made possible by a generous benefactor who upon hearing the group sing for the first time at a festival in Nova Scotia, came up to them afterwards to give them a cheque for thousands of dollars so they could commit their amazingness to CD. This is the power of a live performance by this band.
The level and diverse range of musical talent in this province is flat out astonishing. I would list all my favourites, but there are so many your eyes would glaze over. If you’re in St. John’s you have to go down to Fred’s Records opposite the war memorial on Duckworth Street. You can stock up there.
I’ve long wondered why Newfoundland and Labrador musicians are so many and so gifted, and I think that although there are lots of different reasons, it mostly comes down to heart. They have so much heart and they emote so powerfully when they perform and when they record.
They just seem to feel more somehow. And I don’t quite know why that is, but I’m glad they do.
To listen to a collection of The Once tracks, visit their Myspace page.