The Swell Season’s Victory Lap


The word Glen Hansard uses to describe the last couple years of his life is unfathomable. Fair enough. Glen’s just walked onstage at Radio City Music Hall, whereupon an exuberant, sold-out crowd immediately gave him a standing ovation simply for showing up, an affable Irish dude clutching a resoundingly beat-to-shit acoustic guitar, the wood completely worn through in spots along the path his forceful right hand travels as he strums. This is a tactical visual choice, of course, a sly way of pointing out that I’m Still the Same Affable Irish Dude, and also I’ve Been Doing This For a Long Time, and maybe a little I Can Play This Fucker So Loud and So Hard You Can’t Even Hear the Chord Anymore. For his first number, he stands at the lip of the stage, both guitar and voice unamplified, bellowing into a loving abyss. You have never heard an exuberant, sold-out crowd go so silent.

Glen is bellowing “Say It to Me Now”—he’s got the most appealingly melodic shouting voice in the busker-folk canon—and the song is one of the shoutier tunes on the soundtrack to Once, the unfathomably beloved indie flick/DIY musical, also starring Czech Republic singer-songwriter Markéta Irglóva, who is now Glen’s bandmate (in the Swell Season) and girlfriend. (He’s 38. She’s 20. Not bad, dogg.) This is their victory lap—in February, the pair won the Best Song Oscar for “Falling Slowly,” the tender, plaintive, florid, agreeably goopy guitar-and-piano ballad at the film’s winsome heart. The absurdity of a film so tiny garnering such massive acclaim—coupled with the Oscar-ceremony producers haplessly cutting off Markéta’s speech, leading host Jon Stewart to drag her back out again after the commercial break to finish it—made for the second-cutest Best Song moment in Oscar history. (Nothing will ever top the Three 6 Mafia.)

So now here they are, beaming brightly and happily, backed by a tasteful decaf-coffeehouse band, singing their plaintive, goopy songs about the heart battling the brain and whatnot, wistfully reminiscing about walking by this enormous venue in wonder just two years ago, when they couldn’t sell out a place bigger than Piano’s. The trick to something like this—a relatively small and humble outfit inexplicably achieving huge popularity—is to somehow make a shed like Radio City feel like Piano’s. “Glen turns every room he plays into a big living room,” one concertgoer raved to me the next day; this is an intricate art. Hence the show-opening a cappella gambit; hence the long, cute, rambling banter between songs. Another word Glen uses a lot is thanks, pronounced tanks; over two hours, he unleashes several wayward, affable monologues the crowd just eats up, apologizing for the occasional curse word (“We’re Irish—it’s a thing we do”), explaining his culture’s traditional divorce ceremony (the wife points at her husband’s junk and says, “No”), and indulging in a bit of New Age self-help patter (“The heart is a lion driving a train full-speed on ice”). Markéta is even less polished, earnestly explaining to us how she strives to turn her mistakes into life lessons before singing a sweetly submissive ballad (“I kiss your face/Stroke your hair/Wash your tired feet with care”) and pulling her sister onstage, literally out of the crowd (like 20 rows back, too), to sing a tune from the soundtrack of the original ’70s version of The Wicker Man. (No, not the one where Nicolas Cage, dressed in a bear suit, punches a woman in the face, alas.)

You have to love these people; you find yourself fighting the urge to protect them, nurture them, nurse them back to health though they’re far more robust in their own way than even Erykah Badu was on this stage a couple weeks back and even Dolly friggin’ Parton was the week before that. Glen and Markéta’s voices expertly intertwine, his keening falsetto just as expert as his shouting, her upper register blessed with the legato loveliness of a violin. Not everything they lay their hands to rises above typical easy-listening Starbucks patter, but the moments that do shoot through the roof: The killer moment in Once is still the epic, wordless climax of “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” Glen snarling, Markéta wailing, an epic, furious, nearly punk-rock squall overtaking them both.

Of course it’s worth noting that Glen’s an old hand at this, this affable-superstar business. Tonight, he plays several tunes by the Frames, his long-running Irish arena-rock band, on hiatus mostly since the film blew up, but still plenty huge themselves, in certain circles: 2004’s Set List is improved mightily by one of the most raucous, vocally enraptured crowds in live-album history. The best Frames songs share the same DNA that made Once so magnetic: “What Happens When the Heart Just Stops” is one long, graceful crescendo, expertly threaded out a measure at a time, until Glen’s pounding on his beat-to-crap guitar and howling disappointment over and over like it’s the most optimistic word in the English language. The triumph here lies in making master craftsmanship like that look easy, look natural, masking professional elegance in homely DIY denim. Glen and Markéta reel off two ebullient Van Morrison covers, let their violin player unleash an effects-pedal-heavy arty piece from his own solo album, and haul up opening band and fellow Irishmen Interference to plow through the Once track “Gold,” the band’s lead singer practically dancing in his electric wheelchair. Just more welcome houseguests in what is, for the moment, the biggest living room in New York City.