The Swell Season, with Martha Wainwright November 13 Ogden Theatre
For fans of the film Once, a population that encompasses pretty much everyone who's viewed it, the prospect of seeing the movie's stars, Markéta Irglová and recent Westword profile and Q&A subject Glen Hansard, singing and playing their music live inspires expectations that seem impossibly high. Yet their Denver show suggested that nothing is impossible -- at least when they're on the stage. As the Swell Season, the somewhat unwieldy moniker under which they're performing these days, they positively entranced a packed house at the Ogden, proving that the real thing can be every bit as moving as even the finest fiction.
The night's opening slot fell to Martha Wainwright, a member of an extraordinary musical family: daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, sister of Rufus Wainwright. Thus far, though, she's a blooming talent, rather than one in full flower.
Wainwright's a fine singer with an impressive range -- she can shift effortlessly from baby-doll coo to full-throated yowl -- and at the Ogden, she demonstrated a nice rapport with the crowd, casually gabbing between tunes about the effects of the pot brownie she'd recently ingested and the battering her knees take because of the way she keeps the beat by stamping her high-heel clad feet. Her material has its moments, too, including a thus-far unreleased effort referred to as "Jesus and Mary" in an online fan forum. Wainwright induced fans to trill loudly in Arabic fashion during what she called the darkest and most macabre singalong imaginable.
Nonetheless, many of Wainwright's compositions, such as "When the Day Is Short," constitute intermittently effective mood slabs as opposed to fully rounded songs. At one point, she stopped playing a number because, in her words, it sounded too much like the one she'd just finished -- but she subsequently launched into another minor-key strummer that wasn't terribly dissimilar. Her best offering was her last, the poetically titled "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole," because it holds its shape from beginning to end rather than drifting amorphously.
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A few minutes later, the Swell Season's set began -- and attendees who thought the show would be built around intimate duets between Hansard and Irglová immediately had to adjust any preconceived notions. Hansard kicked off the proceedings with a solo spotlight before Irglová entered along with cellist Bertrand Galen and two members of Hansard's longtime combo, the Frames -- bassist Joseph Doyle and violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire. Moreover, Hansard and Irglová, who are currently involved in the sort of romantic relationship that doesn't come to fruition in Once, resisted the temptation to overtly display their mutual feelings by way of sucking up to the throng. No kisses, no hugs -- just whispered asides and affectionate glances. And whereas Hansard and Irglová appear to be on near equal footing in the movie, she tended to defer to him onstage, sitting quietly on her piano bench, a shy smile on her face, as he regaled the throng with song introductions filled with wit and blarney. The differences in their age and size came through more strongly in a concert setting as well. Standing next to the long, lanky Hansard, Irglová seemed incredibly young and very small -- an impression that was reenforced when she played his guitar, which appeared to be almost as big as her.
But for all the differences in dynamics, the emotional truth of these artists came through with stunning clarity. The musicians played rich, gorgeous versions of Once soundtrack entries: "Falling Slowly," "When Your Mind's Made Up," "If You Want Me" and more. Hansard handled other film entries by his lonesome, giving well-deserved attention to "Lies" and "Leave." And he and Irglová shared a microphone on a couple of inspired covers -- a spare, raucous rendition of the Pixies' "Cactus" and a version of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" worthy of the Irish Bard himself.
Hansard was a wonder throughout -- able to joke one minute and wring tears the next with revivals of Frames chestnuts such as "Lay Me Down." His singing explored just as much territory -- hushed crooning, perfect harmonies, fevered wailing -- as he alternately caressed and clobbered the same timeworn acoustic guitar he uses onscreen. The contrast between his burliness and Irglová's delicacy couldn't have been lovelier -- and the same can be said of the connection between performers and audience, especially on the last song. Hansard seemed ready to say goodnight, but Irglová called him over for a brief conversation, and afterward, he launched into another selection from the Frames catalog, the beguiling "Star Star." Amid the tune, which features a charming snippet of the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory favorite "Pure Imagination," the folks at the Ogden spontaneously began singing along so sweetly that Hansard's eyes welled. Then, an inspired ticket-buyer tossed in a "Yeah" at the end of a melodic passage that broke up the band but was perfect just the same. When the number came around to this point again, Hansard nodded at the guy, whose second "Yeah" was even more satisfying than the first.
I've been to plenty of good shows and quite a few excellent ones, but I've attended precious few where I walked away afterward feeling as if I've just received a gift that will last a lifetime. The Swell Season's concert falls into this last category. It wasn't just fun to be there. It was a privilege. -- Michael Roberts