Although the AMAUK awards showcase was happening just a mile or two to the East in Hackney, The Once drew a very appreciative crowd to this compact Islington venue. Somewhat remote from the heartlands of the music industry as Newfoundland natives and residents, their narratives include some scenes that you just won’t encounter in the big city bands. Lead singer Geraldine Hollett is happy to concede that their location gives them a tendency to sit slightly outside the norm. That said, many of their songs look at basic human traits and emotions that would be common ground, whether in St John’s, Newfoundland or Nashville, Tennessee.
They have a decade of recorded material to dip into and do so, with a slight focus on the latest album ‘Time Enough’, which they crafted separately before coming together to, in Hollett’s wonderful words, “Once-up the guts,” based on trusting their experience of what works for the band. At their soaring best the vocals, instrumentation and pace are in the ballpark of Alison Krauss and Union Station whilst the last third of the set heads into a more traditional rock-folk style with chords that wouldn’t be out of place on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
The background explained between songs generally hits the right balance, in particular there was the extraordinary tale behind the set’s highlight ‘Charlie’s’, a song from Hollett regarding her father’s brush with death when fishing. She comes from a fishing village of 16 houses and a population of 387 and the local sea fishing culture means that occasional fatalities and serious accidents are part of life experience. The song stood out tonight, musically as well as lyrically. ‘Kerosene Light’ was another song rooted in their region’s rural isolation, a death in childbirth tale sung as an acapella trio, the simplicity of the delivery emphasising the timeless nature of the narrative. Meanwhile there was ‘Gonna Get Good’, the lead vocals taken by Phil Churchill, his voice sharing some common ground with Eels’ Mark Everett. The song is about releasing the inner child within the sensible mature adult, on the basis that we are all heading towards mortality’s non-negotiable conclusion so shouldn’t spend our time unduly constrained.
‘We Are Love’, with banjo from multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dale taking a central part, looked at a couple whose relationship has become stale, each seeking some new spark of illumination from the other. Dale also took the lead on ‘Foreign Shore’, a song he wrote, its lovely melody describing the heavenly sky looking down at his late father’s funeral. As evidence of the band’s slightly left field trajectory, there’s even a quirky cover of Queen’s late 1970s single, ‘You’re My Best Friend’, which bizarrely landed the band at a heady 95 in the South Korean charts, and their rendering reminds us that the song is fine simple pure pop-rock at heart.