Every year Artistic Director James Keelaghan writes a series of 12 articles for the Owen Sound Sun Times previewing the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival
Pictured: The Once

By James Keelaghan

A couple of weekends ago, I went to play the Trails Tales Tunes Festival in Newfoundland. It took place on the wild west coast in a little town called Norris Point which sits in the indescribably beautiful Gros Morne National Park. A great time was had by all in this tiny town and the festival is a local affair mostly, though they can occasionally get a performer in from off the Island and I was honoured that this year it was me.

The fact that most of the acts are local might deter some people from going — but this is Newfoundland. It didn’t matter what small venue I went to, the music was excellent. But that is to be expected because — this is Newfoundland!

Before leaving town on Sunday, I stopped at the little cafe on the main street for a bite to eat. After ordering and before I sat down, a woman across the room looked over at me and said: “ Welcome to town!” I responded with a thank you and sat to eat. It was par for the course, people are welcoming and I’d just played four shows in town so there was a good chance that my face was already familiar.

There are two things you should know about me–I am very nearsighted, even with my glasses on, and I am not good at recognising people I know when I see them out of context.

I bussed my dishes and walked by the woman’s table. She stood up and called me by name and it wasn’t until then that I recognised her. It was Geraldine Hollett, one of the members of The Once. Their name wasn’t on the festival roster, so I was surprised to see her. But it turns out they were in the cafe because they are locals–well, from Cornerbrook actually, but they were out for a drive.

Being a folk singer in Calgary when I was growing up musically, I didn’t have a lot of competition. We had a great folk scene, but it was Calgary. It’s not like there was a centuries-old tradition of Calgarian balladeers to live up to.

But if you are from the Rock, if you are going to tout yourself as a folk musician, a songwriter or a musician of almost any stripe, you have a lot to live up to. And to rise to the top of the heap, to be respected by the community is not something that happens lightly.

The Once are deserving of the praise they get from their fellow Newfoundlanders. The island has a reputation for growing songwriters — Ron Hynes, Pamela Morgan and Noel Dinn, Harry Hibbs to name a few. The Once are solidly in this tradition. Like Hynes, they tend to the contemporary. Over the years, the traditional material from earlier CDs has been replaced by their own compositions. The newest CD is all original but the echoes of a uniquely Newfoundland heritage are there.

The lauds don’t only come from Newfoundland. Pop sensation, Passenger, clearly saw something he liked in them. They joined him on his 2014 tours in North America, Europe and Australia, winning a whole new audience for their music.

The newest CD, Time Enough, remains true to their greatest strength — effortless harmonies elegantly arranged. While Hollett’s bell-like voice remains the centerpiece of this sound, Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale are no slouches when it comes to the vocals. they are as supple as it comes — a classic trio, at home with both sprightly pop tunes or tender ballads

The new material is grounded in real life, in the regrets and the hopes that drive our emotional lives. There’s a common longing in the songs, to repair what’s wrong, to keep moving forward, that self-discovery doesn’t come for free.

Most of the material is a joint effort with each member of the band bringing their expertise to bear in lyric or melody as each song demands. In the ten years they’ve been together they have developed the skill of working as a group on the music, remaining true to the song.

It’s their fourth studio CD since they met and created The Once ten years ago.

We didn’t have much time to talk at the cafe — they had a drive back to Cornerbrook and I had to get to Deer Lake for an early flight but I let them know that I was looking forward to hearing the new material played live.  I’m also looking forward to recognizing them right off the bat.

It’s been eight years since The Once joined us at our festival. We’re happy to welcome them back to Summerfolk44 the weekend of August 16, 17, 18 at Kelso Beach Park in Owen Sound. Information about performers, tickets and more is available by pointing your browser to summerfolk.org.

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