The Swell Season might sound like the name of a high-art STC production, or a euphemism for autumn, or the fullness of spring, but it's the name of a band. When I say band, on tour that may be so but, essentially, The SS is a duo: Glen Hansard, from Irish outfit, The Frames, and Marketa Irglova, a classically-trained singer and pianist from the Czech republic; 'though you wouldn't know it, from her sweetly attractive lilt. It all started, apparently, with an album of the same name, circa 2006, on which the pair collaborated with Bertrand Galen & Marja Tuhkanen. it was this venture that predicated The Swell Season forming as a band, stealing The Frames willing members as its core.
It might've started with a half-dozen shows to promote the album, in Ireland, but it was quickly exported to the US and, with release and resultant swelling of enthusiasm for their cinematic embarkation, the rest is history.
Seems I'm about the last one to know of Hansard & Markeva's acting as well as musical contributions to Once, a naturalistic drama from a few years back, written and directed by fellow-Irishman, John Carney (who just happens to be a former Frames bass-player). The Oscar-winning film, which I'm now hankering to see, would appear to be art, imitating life, imitating art, as it focuses on a busker, a migrant, and a week spent together, in Dublin, writing, rehearsing and recording songs, that tell their love story; shot in 17 days, for $150,000.
A lust for celebrity made flesh, I cynically suspect, might've accounted for the overwhelming turnout on an otherwise sleepy Easter Monday night. Of course, it doesn't matter how one garners one's audience, I suppose, 'cept this is a band that deserves one comprised solely of persons as committed to this music as the band's members clearly are.
Shamed as I am by my almost abject ignorance, to this point, of The Swell Season and the band from which most of its members emanate (which has supported Dylan), this event has confirmed me as an instant and ardent fan, since it's quite simply and undoubtedly one of the best shows I've ever seen.
Touring, presumably, in honour of their new album, Strict Joy, The Studio is a judiciously-sized, acoustically sympathetic venue in which to showcase their folk-rock sensibilities, which put me in mind of the sensitive, orchestrated leanings of our own David Bridie, not least in the context of My Friend The Chocolate Cake. On the night I attended, however, to my surprise, the concert was not there, but in the concert hall, a rather less intimate space. I was further astonished to find that, uncharacteristically, all seating areas were open and, by the time proceedings were underway, the venue was packed to the rafters.
Credit where due: the three stoic members of The Frames that swell the ranks are guitarist Rob Bochnik, violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire and bassist Joe Doyle. Graham Hopkins joined the group, on drums, more recently. All are exceptional, making for a collective sound sublimely-tailored to the compositions.
Aside from an encore that featured a warm & tender adaptation of a 17th-century ditty (a kind of equivalent of Auld Lang Syne), and a soothing, spotlit solo from Iomaire of another traditional ballad, the Irish sensibility was more innate than overt, coming through in that certain style Australians are familiar with through a colonial legacy exemplified in Waltzing Matilda and other songs of similar vintage. And, of course, in the quintessential charm and charisma, the twinkle in the eye, that 'craicling' spark of the lifeforce, so often evident and associated with the Celts.
Hansard, especially, is a dab hand at developing a kind of personal rapport, even in a space as cavernous as the concert hall, of the ilk that deludes you into thinking he's playing and singing for you alone. And with his every breath, he exudes commitment, sincerity and passion. There's no touting of merch; no pricey haircuts, no affectations whatsoever. The clothes they wore looked no different from those they'd wear to the shops, the pub, or the bank. And Hansard's guitar is a thing of strangely rustic beauty: it's so well-worn that not only has it been stripped of varnish, but the wood has been eaten away, to the point where the soundhole isn't alone. Yet it sounds incredible.
There were a couple of covers: Hansard soloed with a Van Morrison song which, along with a number of others, would've almost certainly resulted in the opera house sails visibly billowing, such was the vocal and instrumental power he mustered; the latter almost launching a new genre, in the form of thrash-folk.
Their songs exploit the concept of dynamics to the nth: Hansard can veer from an almost-whispered, steeply-pitched, fragile falsetto to a leonine roar within a few bars; it's nothing for him to do so. By contrast, the shy and retiring Irglova sings like an angel, but can turn on some gale-force harmonies when called upon. Both disarm with their tales and backstories.
One of the most profound surprises was midstream, when Irglova introduced LJ Hill, a cuddly bloke, part-Aboriginal, part-Cherokee, part-Irish. He joked about his heritage. 'My great-grandfather was Irish. My father was a great magician. He could go 'round a corner and turn in to a pub. My mother saw him disappear many times.' He then sang a deeply affecting song, entitled The Pretty-Bird Tree, about time wiled away on the banks of the Namoi, in his home town of Narrabri.
They covered so much territory in two-&-a-half very solid hours of stage time, it's almost impossible to cover, lest I spend as long, or longer waxing lyrical about each and every song. Irglova even delivered a very unpredictable encore: a delicate, heartfelt, classically-tinged reconfiguration of Andrew Lloyd Webber's I Don't Know How To Love Him. A brave choice. And a wondrously unforgettable rendition.
It's, similarly, impossible to pick winners: the material is as finely-woven as Irish linen; with all its peerless authenticity, to boot. On this basis, my suggestion is all-too-arbitrary, but one of the most compelling performances was of When Your Mind's Made Up, a torn-to-shreds tale of torment and torture with which all pleasers will reluctantly identify. Hansard gave it all he had, which was a helluva lot. It sounded as if his heart would leap out of his body, at any moment, to save itself.
The Swell Season is a gift that keeps on giving. Swell concert!
The hard-to-manage acoustical idiosyncrasies of the concert hall were, on the whole, well-managed (it's no friend of electric music, really), though the violin solo would've been so much more in keeping had it been acoustic, with all the clicks, squeaks, moans and groans that so richly characterise and colour that instrument's sound, which can all too easily be rendered soulless and homogenised by a pickup. Hansard got it right when, for one song, he stepped to the very edge of the stage, to sing and play without any amplification whatsoever. He's got the goods to pull it off and, if you've got it, you know what they say!
Just let me know when they're next concert is. I'm there. So should you be, if you know what's good for you.
The Swell Season
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
Venue: Sydney Opera House | Bennelong Point, Sydney
Date: Mon 5 Apr, 2010
Bookings: 02 9250 7777