Photographs by Neil Van.
Sweet, quaint, delightful. Any and all of these adjectives could be fittingly applied to St Johns, Newfoundland folk trio The Once. It’s important to note that these words would be apt without a hint of condescension. Simply put, they’re a joy to witness. Dazzling three part harmonies and a capella arrangements stoke a nostalgic longing for idyllic rural memories regardless of one’s own past. In hearing them perform, you feel like you’re a part of an alternate reality in which negativity never existed.
It was a testament to their talent that their show was so engrossing. Wielding their voices like fine woodwind instruments, their sound was full and resonant. Banjo, guitar and tambourine found their space, but were without a doubt secondary to the band’s natural born implements. The setlist drifted between uplifting original content, clearly tied to authentic experiences, and a few choice covers. It was supportive and encouraging all around. Even the tale of an unnoticed woman at a bar became a springboard for self-affirmation and positivity, tied together with rollicking percussion and faint flamenco flair. Queen’s You’re My Best Friend scored an inspired rearrangement to the tune of plucky banjo chopping and cheerful layered harmonies. Their treatment of Elvis’ Fools Rush In discarded the trembling ballad tone for boisterous merriment. Closing with We Are All Running, an ode to the connectedness of the human condition, the crowd was left with a palpable feeling of satisfaction, buzzing for the headlining act.
Having been launched into the spotlight on the back of 2012 single Let Her Go, Passenger (Michael David Rosenberg) occupies a unique quadrant of the pop spectrum. A folk singer-songwriter with over 12 years’ experience, his overnight success is more indicative of a confluence of timing, luck and experience rather than a flash in the pan manufactured mentality. As he admitted, Let Her Go took him about 45 minutes to write in the back of a tiny venue, but opened him up to a world he never thought possible. It lent his performance a certain candour, as if he was still somewhat disbelieving of his own trajectory.
In his element there was an almost magical quality to his energy. Elven voiced and radiating charisma, his years busking and hustling in small bars has gifted him with a bardic air. Equal parts loquacious and ludic he came off as naturally sincere, his songs finding footholds in poignant life moments. Riding to New York related his own story, a cigarette run cut short by meeting a lung cancer afflicted elderly man, driven to make amends with his family. My Heart’s On Fire saw him bringing out his old musician friend Stu Larsen for bouts of duelling crooning and practiced harmonies. I Hate evoked an everyday humanity that translated impeccably to a sparkling crowd response.
It’d be hard to single one song out as a fan favourite when each new track received an ovation of recognition. Hands held to hearts, the audience sang along passionately with continual encouragement from Rosenberg. It was a show catered toward the fans, laden with humour, positivity and reassurance. Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence and Bruce Springsteen’s The River each found a welcome reception with the younger audience, while the sharply chosen intro to Avicii’s Wake Me Up (“here’s a brand new one I just wrote a few weeks ago” quipped Rosenberg) scored a bullseye in the heart of the average attendee. While I only saw one girl carried out for literally fainting, audibly contented sighs evinced a room full of swoons. Let him go girls, let him go.