The Swell Season delivers in America

Nov. 30, 2007, midnight | By Kiera Zitelman | 16 years, 4 months ago

Skilled duo lights up Lincoln Theater in first American tour

It's hard to disappoint an audience that already loves the artist even before they perform. But even with an adoring crowd, the Swell Season played an exceptional show of their emotional acoustic masterpieces at Lincoln Theater on Sunday, Nov. 18, in Washington, DC.

The Swell Season is made up of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Hansard is lead singer of The Frames, whose 2004 album "Burn the Maps" went to number one in the Irish Album Charts. He and Irglova star in "Once," a musical about an Irish street musician (Hansard) and a Czech pianist (Irglova) who take refuge in each other after escaping their previous lives. Hansard got the part due to the work of director John Carney, former bassist for the Frames. Prior to the release of the soundtrack to "Once" (with Irglova and Hansard sharing writing and performing credits on all but one song), the pair released the Swell Season, Hansard's first independent project and Irglova's first studio album.

Hansard began the night with the solo "Say It to Me Now," one of the most raw and emotional songs from the "Once" soundtrack. His old, beat-up acoustic guitar has a unique, steely sound that fills a room just like his voice, which can go from the softest whisper to a deafening shout as quickly as a song transitions into a chorus. "Say It to Me Now" was originally recorded by the Frames on their 1996 album, "Fitzcarraldo," in a confusing cloud of electronic drums, bass, guitar and keyboard. Hansard simplified the song for "Once," a good move – the acoustic version showcases his versatile voice and musical abilities better than most of the songs he played at Lincoln Theater.

Irglova, 19, and Hansard, 37, date in real life. But their romance has done nothing but improve their work – the listener can see and feel the attraction between the two in their delicate harmonies and highly emotional lyrics. During their concert at Lincoln Theater, the pair showed off their awareness of each other onstage. In the second song, "All the Way Down," Hansard played soft acoustic guitar and focused on fitting his own voice in with Irglova's fragile, softer and far higher one. The result was a captivating song that silenced every member of the audience.

A bassist, cellist and violin player joined the pair for "This Low," which particularly showcased Hansard and Irglova's skills at harmonizing. About half of the song consists of the same three words sung over and over again, with little musical variation, but Hansard and Irglova (who played piano) managed to mesmerize the audience by incorporating subtle tone changes into each verse.

Even with the obvious crowd worship, the Swell Season still played a remarkable show that would have converted any first-time listener into a hard-core fan. Hansard played his guitar so vigorously during his fast-paced wailing of "When Your Mind's Made Up" that pieces of wood flew off – the trademark hole in the bottom, which can be seen in "Once," grew bigger still. The five-piece band played beautifully on the Frames' classic, lyric-focused "What Happens When the Heart Just Stops." And Hansard even covered Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" in a solo, acoustic rendition that was surprising in its exuberance.

Opening for the Swell Season was Martha Wainwright, younger sister of singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright. The younger Wainwright had musically advanced guitar songs with complex, metaphor-heavy lyrics, but her squeaky, nasal voice evoked an inexperienced eight-year-old girl experimenting with her vocal range. Wainwright joined the Swell Season during their encore for a song that focused less on her voice and more on the band as a whole, which put her in a far better light than her earlier solo performances did.

With their already-brilliant show, it was no surprise that the Swell Season was called back for an encore (Hansard still made a point of repeatedly thanking the audience for listening). But after their first encore, in which they played four songs, they returned for a second encore to play Bob Dylan's "I Ain't Goin' Nowhere," which Hansard and Irglova recorded for the soundtrack to the upcoming Dylan biopic "I'm Not There." This last song got every audience member on their feet and singing along for only the second time during the show.

There might be a case for those few critics who ask how a band that is loved before they walk on stage can disappoint at a concert, but the Swell Season followed through with an emotional blend of well-written songs. "Once" has already gained popularity beyond the filmmakers' wildest dreams, and Hansard and Irglova showed that they have the skills to achieve a huge following.

Kiera Zitelman. Kiera Zitelman goes by many names and Photo Booth effects. She enjoys being able to drive and representing Kensington. She likes her dog, Sophie, and her human friend of the same name. Kiera owns one-third of a hot dog toaster and one-fourth of a movie … More »

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