Wednesday, April 20, 2011
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ONCE
The usual view of the East Coast music scene is that it's a small regional area of the country, rich in musical tradition with lots of bands of all types. That's pretty much right, except that it's actually a big geographical area as the crow flies. Most of us NB'ers don't get to visit the rest of the area all that often. Sure, you get the occasional trip to Halifax or PEI, but Cape Breton or Newfoundland, that's a special voyage, and certainly we don't get to know about all the music happening in each place. So unless a new group tours to your city or you notice them on-line or radio, you can miss a lot.
That's my job then, to tell you about the latest cool music happening on the East Coast. That's one of the reasons why the ECMA's are important, to showcase the latest bands so we can share this information. That's why, if you miss one, you can miss out on a lot. And that's why I failed you, dear readers, by not attending last year's event. I can't even remember why I didn't go, that's not important. But what is important is that I missed out on a few groups, and one group in particular. Not just any group, but the group of the year at this year's ECMA's.
I did my usual predictions before I went to Charlottetown, and did not bad, five out of ten for the categories I looked at. One I missed completely was Group Recording of the Year. I thought about Boxer the Horse, a hip young band out of Halifax, Wintersleep, certainly one of the top groups in the region, and then thought Slowcoaster would win, because of their big hits on radio from The Darkest of Discos. The band The Once from Newfoundland didn't even register with me, because I didn't know them. I hadn't heard their self-titled disc, and since I haven't been to St. John's in a bit, I hadn't heard ABOUT them. It turns out I'd missed the excitement over them at last year's ECMA's too.
My bad. In fact, it didn't take long for me to discover what I'd been missing. The very first night of the ECMA's, they were on stage playing to delegates and buyers from around the globe. Immediately it's obvious this is a traditional band with a big difference. Two men, one woman, Geraldine Hollett is the singer, and what a great voice she has, a really captivating one, on stage or on disc, the kind that holds your attention immediately. It's nice and pure, like cold spring water. The backing is sparse but effective, usually just a couple of instruments going from Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale, anything with strings really, from bouzoukis to banjo, and some light percussion. While Geraldine has the dominate lead, on occasion the boys break in with some harmonies.
I think it's the choice of material that really sets the group apart, and the way they tackle it is very different, thanks to some unique arrangements. There are several a cappela songs or sections of songs, and that's when Geraldine's voice really hits you. It's emotional stuff, a lot of it older traditional numbers. Hearing her sing these sad ballads transports you, and she can capture your heart on stage or on record. For modern material, they have picked some really clever numbers, including two Leonard Cohen tracks you don't hear covered, Anthem and Coming Back To You, and there's a song by their friend, the excellent East Coast writer Amelia Curran. Hollett makes each song her own, and you can hear her pour her all into the numbers. I think also the dramatic training she has certainly helps in how she delivers the songs.
It's been awhile since I've been this excited about a largely traditional group, having been bombarded by them in years past. Now that the craze is over, perhaps the cream is rising again. Anyway, I'm glad to be on board with The Once, finally.