Celtic Connections: The Once and Mike Vass

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The Drygate
Glasgow
Friday, January 23rd 2019


The Once and Mike Vass set sail from Nova Scotia and Nairn to bring home tonight’s
audience a grand haul of songs. Mike Vass opened the show with his first ever performance as a singer heading up a band. He is already, of course, well known as a composer, Malinky fiddle player, sailor, teacher and musical boat blogger of some renown. These latest songs constitute an autobiographical project transmitted in very emotionally engaging music which was characteristically well arranged for his chosen band of trumpet, cello, bass, keyboards and drums. In songs where the words matter, some are a bit thin on tunes, and some tuneful songs lose the impact of the words, but Vass’s songs strike just the right tune/word balance.

Of course it’s hard to hear everything at a live gig, but what I heard, I liked e.g. ‘I was only right to touch the tiller lightly’. There’s more to singing than the words and the tune, though, and with Mike’s confident stage presence and easy rapport, he might consider upping the emotional investment, as he becomes a more seasoned singer. He could do worse than studying The Once, who have been singing together since 2004. They have developed a very different autobiographical style which I found refreshingly honest and original, but on which my companion wasn’t so keen. It’s horses for courses, I guess. In terms of an imaginary Beaufort scale of emotional engagement, Mike would be a calm Force 2 or 3 (this comparison is maybe a bit unfair because in Vass’s songs the instruments were doing the emotional talking).

The Once, however, would be a brisk Force 5 or 6. Their music is full of strong melodies and close harmonies, more from a country/folk rock/roots tradition. But it was in the stories which precede some of the songs where the band, and its charismatic singer Geraldine Hollett, were most affecting, with both tragic and uplifting stories powerfully told, and later, sung. In contrast, Phil Churchill’s humour was refreshingly quirky. Since the concert ‘By the glow of the kerosene light’ has been going round my head. It’s a country song by fellow Newfie, Wince Coles, but it tells the kind of desperately sad story which did and still does sometimes happen. The Once sing it marvellously, but their own songs are
much more hopeful. ‘We are all running the same race’ is typical, and declares that ‘the
brightest dawn is yet to come’. Even if it isn’t, it’s nights like tonight which make it all
worthwhile. Something very strengthening is born of nights in winter singing songs which don’t shun sadness yet remain hopeful.

Reviewer: Catherine Eunson

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