The Swell Season at First Avenue, 07/25/10

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Photos by Tony Nelson
The Swell Season
July 25, 2010
First Avenue


The Swell Season, still buoyed by their Oscar win for Best Original Song in 2008 and the success of their recent album Strict Joy, have played the Hollywood Bowl and Radio City Music Hall in 2010, selling out both of the venerable (and cavernous) venues. So, for them to bring their grand show to a club on Sunday night was indeed a rare treat, as they enchanted the gracious audience at the sold-out First Avenue with an intimate, spirited performance.

The band is led by the duo of Glen Hansard (lead singer of the Frames) and Markéta Irglová, who were supported on this evening by a trio of musicians that played drums, bass and guitar along with the acclaimed pair, who smoothly traded off lead vocals, as well as piano and guitar duties, all evening. The stage was sparsely decorated with austere white shapes that provided the modest lighting for the show, and only added to the warm, personal nature of the performance.

The show started strongly, with both "Low Rising" and "In These Arms" resonating strongly with the crowd (especially the lyrics of "Low Rising," which Hansard fittingly changed to "I want you to meet me somewhere tonight in this old purple town") who responded in fine voice when Hansard asked us to sing along with the melodies. Hansard, like any good Irish musician, told many colorful stories throughout the set that only augmented the songs, introducing a stirring version of "Lies" by saying: "This song is about a man that tells the truth about things that didn't happen. It seems to be a male thing."

He also told a story about when his family finally got a VCR, and the first two movies they rented were The Drive and Purple Rain, which he and his brother watched over and over, keeping it for a year and a half and incurring a fine of 175 quid. So it was obviously quite an honor for him to be playing on that stage, and then he went on to spoil the nostalgic moment by jokingly mimicking Prince's gyrations and ejaculatory guitar playing.   

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Photos by Tony Nelson
Irglová came out from behind the grand piano to sing and play guitar on the next two numbers, the delicate "If You Want Me" and "Fantasy Man," which she prefaced by saying: "Now is the time of the tour where we've run out of clean clothes so I have to wear my own merch. I'm not trying to sell myself." But it was a bit strange to see the former couple barely acknowledge each other throughout the performance, with each singer clearly taking the reigns on their songs, while the other faded into the background. They only shared the same microphone once throughout the performance, on a stellar cover of Van Morrison's "Into The Mystic" that was one of the night's clear highlights. But it was sad to see the chemistry that initially made their music so affecting and appealing has somewhat faded.

Glen dedicated a solo acoustic version of "Back Broke" to a man he met "outside of Kieran's. We were both waiting for the pub to open," who said he was going to try and make it to the show if the date he had planned didn't work out. Hansard was hoping the war veteran, who had lost some internal organs in combat, was having some luck with his date, and was encouraged when it appeared the man wasn't at the show. He added a "Love, Reign O'er Me" tag to the end of the tender song, only adding to its clear expressiveness. Markéta took over the vocals on a gentle rendition of "I Have Loved You Wrong," before the main set closed with a trio of songs that were the best of the night. An amped-up version of the Frames' classic "Revelate" quickly gave way to rousing renditions of "When Your Mind's Made Up" and the aforementioned Oscar winning "Falling Slowly," which passionately finished the set.

Hansard and Irglová traded off solo songs to start the encore, with Glen performing an acoustic version of "Say It To Me Now," while Markéta took to the piano to deliver a moving version of the new song "Crossroads." The rest of the band joined them for high-spirited renditions of "Gold" and "High Horses" which finished the set strongly, but I was dismayed to see that a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Drive All Night" was included at the end of the setlist, but sadly went unplayed (along with "What Happens"). So while the set was wonderful, and the songs were all exquisite, it would have been nice to see more interaction between Hansard and Irglová, who kept their icy distance from each other throughout the performance. But that didn't stop the countless number of couples in attendance from holding their partners close, while falling a bit more in love with each other as the show went on. I still would've liked to hear that Springsteen cover though.

Critic's Bias: More a fan of the Frames, but was moved by Once like anyone with a pulse.
The Crowd: Massive and respectful. I was worried with how many people were talking during Joe Pug's opening set that it would continue through the headliners, but everyone wisely shut up and listened. It was great to see both older and younger people enjoying a night of music as well.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Markéta sure looks hot with that short haircut." "She always looks hot."
Random Notebook Dump: That was the best cover of "Into The Mystic" that I've witnessed.

Setlist:

Low Rising
In These Arms
The Rain
Lies
If You Want Me
Fantasy Man
Leave
Back Broke/Love, Reign O'er Me
Into The Mystic (Van Morrison)
I Have Loved You Wrong
Revelate
When Your Mind's Made Up
Falling Slowly

Encore:
Say It To Me Now
Crossroads
Gold
High Horses
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