It may come as somewhat of a surprise that the Swell Season is already packing 1,000-plus venues such as the one they played on this opening night of a three-week North American tour, given that the band — essentially the duo of Frames frontman Glen Hansard and 19-year-old Czech Republic pianist/singer Marketa Irglova — released its debut CD on a relatively small indie label just two years ago. Then again, few fledgling duos have the benefit of co-starring roles in a low-budget film garnering widespread critical acclaim, as has the Irish indie Once (a winner at Sundance and now a darkhorse Oscar candidate, its soundtrack a Grammy nominee).
The anticipatory nature of the night began with a roadie heading down the aisles and handing out free CDs of the duo in a live show from earlier this year. If most of the bohos were there to see Swell Season, Martha Wainwright had no trouble getting their attention performing solo. Her songs drew considerable power from stripped-down arrangements that revealed her surprisingly powerful, open-tuned acoustic guitar playing.
She also held her ground as a storyteller, but there was no way she could compete with Hansard, rock’s most charismatic raconteur. The curly-haired Irishman kicked off Swell Season’s set alone, with a potent reading of “Say It To Me Now”, which offers his trademark structure: Begin with a plaintive growl and ending with yowls of increasing, yet pitch-perfect, intensity. He was then joined by Irglova, who in Once (released in December on DVD) played a moody young Czech émigré cautiously drawn to Hansard’s blustering Dublin busker.
Irglova’s more reserved personality (she’s not yet 20) is somewhat overshadowed by Hansard’s charmingly stoned blarney. But alongside her crystalline piano playing — she also occasionally borrowed Hansard’s famously beat-up acoustic guitar — she had no trouble filling the room with soaring harmonies that make the wide interval leaps of co-written songs such as “Falling Slowly” (also Grammy-nominated) stay in the heart and mind. Further filling out the sound were bassist Joe Doyle and violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire, both of whom also play with Hansard in the Frames, and France’s Bertrand Galen on cello.
Hansard took time for his tall tales of surreal travels and stunted early romance (as in failing to impress a Goth neighbor girl by buying her a burial plot), but he gave generous space to the band, and to the crowd, which sang along ethereally on the Frames’ lilting “Star Star”. Oh, and he also invited a stranger from the audience on stage so the guy could propose to his girlfriend — who, as you might imagine, accepted.
After that giddy moment, Hansard went solo again, strapping on a Telecaster for a couple of fuzz-driven covers of the Pixies and Pavement, and the band came back for a program-closing take on Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic”, deepening the Anglo-Celtic connection. That Hansard manages to unite early Bert Jansch with the moody minimalism of the Radiohead era explains a lot about this artist’s rapidly expanding, all-ages appeal.
The 90-minute show was such a marvel, in fact, my pre-teen son and I drove down to Portland the next day to see the show there. The set list was pretty much the same, save some different covers and no public marriage proposals. But Hansard, forever a busker who can read any crowd, told different stories, or at least changed the punchlines, to set up their songs.
One of the best moments came right off the top. Where Hansard slew his rapt Moore audience with perfect sound, at the chairless Crystal Ballroom he accidentally ripped out a cable during the first few seconds of the opening number. He simply strolled to the front of the stage and belted an even better “Say It To Me Now” to the rafters, sans amplification. For a few sacred minutes, the power was out, but there was no shortage of electricity.