Review: The Once – Out To Lunch 2019
“The Black Box is great because you can never tell what time of day it is,” Portadown-born singer-songwriter Ciara O’Neill commented brightly on the closing day of the Out To Lunch Festival 2019. For a festival that touts itself as “specialising in lunch-based arts solutions”, they certainly understand how great it is to be able to lose oneself in an enthralling musical line-up, even in the middle of the day. The programme this year was absolutely fantastic and the afternoon showing on the final day was no exception.
Local favourite O’Neill opened up for powerhouse folk ensemble from Newfoundland Canada, The Once. The trio, consisting of Geraldine Hollett, Phil Churchill and Andrew Dale, have recently released their sixth studio album, Time Enough. Over a decade of spinning sweet harmonies and touching stories, this band has earned a well-deserved place in the annals of the long folk tradition in Canada’s Eastern reaches. With a busy tour schedule ahead of them in Europe and Australia, this well-seasoned outfit will be leaving a trail of melted hearts along the way, if this appearance in Belfast is any indication.
The Once humbly remarked that they were honoured to have Ciara O’Neill open for them, and hoped that one day they would be able to return the favour. I could see where they were coming from as I sat back, soaking in Ciara’s wistful and tender offerings. Standing solo on the stage, just her and a lovely acoustic guitar, she sang, “A heart without love is empty/ One regret is too many” in her goosebumps-inducing song ‘Favourite Mistake’. Her musicality was impressive and the melodies ran deep from the depths of her soul and out her busy fingertips.
The Once came next, jumping into a heart-pumping, up-tempo ditty, heavy on the banjo and reckless abandon. Right from the beginning, lead singer Geri set the precedent for a fun, inclusive and personable set by chatting eagerly to the crowd in that homely drawl of hers. “That’s part of it,” she quipped cannily to the buzzes and pops of the sound system, working out the kinks as the group dove into their extensive body of work.
The percussion section was dispersed among the band through shakers, tambourines, and two kick-pedals operated by the band’s latest addition, bassist Greg. Additionally, everyone on stage let their voices to dazzling four-part harmonies. Geri’s unique and dreamy breathless voice, spun like silk around the perfectly balanced instrumentation. This was particularly effective on The Once’s adorable cover of Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend”, which they jokingly recounted started out as a request for a friend’s wedding and eventually (and inadvertently) launched them into the pop charts of South Korea.
Both guitarist Phil and multi-instrumentalist Andrew had their chance to take the lead with songs they had written, each of which was prefaced with a quirky anecdote or sincere story behind the lyrics. For Phil, it was a call to keep hold of one’s inner child—comedically describing that that kid is still there, just trapped inside a wrinkled cage—with the lovely “Gonna Get Good.” Andrew’s song “Foreign Shore” saw the artist dealing with the death of his father.
The most poignant moment of the generally emotional set, however, came as Geri recounted the near loss of her own father when her mother was newly pregnant with her. The song “Charlie’s Thank You” encapsulated that moment and feeling so strongly that I was moved to tears; the singer herself seemed to be fighting the urge to cry as she laid herself bare in the performance.
Like a palette cleanser between songs, The Once slipped in some stellar acapello pieces that followed a great folk tradition, with resounding choruses that the audience was encouraged to learn and sing along to, making it all the more immersive. Apart from the interactive tunes in the band’s lineup, many members of the audience were singing the words to most songs, obviously converted fans after the band’s last visit, which was nice to see.
The set wasn’t confined to all “sobering thoughts for a Sunday afternoon” as Andrew quipped, but many light-hearted tunes filled out the beautiful repertoire. These were songs that were prefaced playfully with deadpan banter like, “Anybody here celebrating a relationship that’s gone stale?” and “Who here talks to themselves in front of the mirror?” There is certainly something very remarkable to this band that might not be heard on a first listen to their recordings, but that is ever elucidated by their live performance. They don’t even conform strictly to the folk genre either, sounding reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac on the upbeat “I Can’t Live Without You.” It was thrilling to watch unfold.
With a kicked up, boot stomping cover of “Falling in Love With You” that picked up the pace and the volume halfway through, the bandmates positively beamed their unbridled glee, defying that audience not to smile. The final song had the crowd singing and clapping along, and the thunderous applause carried on long enough to get them back up for an encore, before first cheekily checking to see that the audience wasn’t applauding with joy that the band had finished, The Once treated us to another lovely four-way acapello number and a valedictory “Some Lies.”
“Love, you’re always with me/ And know the distance can’t come between/ And though I cannot touch you/ You know I got you next to me/ Goodbye goodbye,” they sang emotively by way of farewell, but with the promise to come back again soon. I sure hope they keep their word!