“Scratching at the surface now / And I’m trying hard to work it out”
Three distinctly different male/female duos took to the packed Hollywood Bowl for another installment of KCRW’s World Music Festival on a warm evening. One a quirky indie pop act, another a regressive look back at pop of yesteryear and the last a stirring revelation evoking the best of folk and rock traditions learned from American and Irish artists. This was the strongest evening of music so far this Summer at the Bowl. The Swell Season, after years of building popularity found themselves headlining quite possibly the biggest show of their career. Their Oscar win for “Falling Slowly” from the inspiring film Once they also starred in, catapulted them to new levels of exposure. Their music is a soulful rumination on love both lost and renewed and their performances are relished amidst their fans for both charming banter and heart-wrenching honesty. This set was no different, and conclusively proves how the duo has carved out a special place for themselves that few musical acts ever manage to reach.
“And so much has gone misunderstood / And this mystery only leads to doubt”
First up though, before The Swell Season were Los Angeles’ own The Bird and the Bee. A curious project fronted by singer Inara George and producer/multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin, The Bird and the Bee have made the rounds locally for several years, slowly growing a following while releasing albums not indie or eccentric enough to capture fans the likes of which Cat Power might, and not saccharine or poppy enough to appeal to top 40 radio. However, with a full band and skilled help by way of former Beck/Nine Inch Nails bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson and Puscifer backing vocal contributor Juliette Commagere, The Bird and The Bee were a peppy start to a great evening. Confectionary and sweet without pressing the boundaries of irritation, George’s cooing on “Again & Again” was inviting and the band’s energy helped color in the songs with a danceable feel. The group’s cover of Hall & Oates “Sara Smile” (from their recent release Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates) kept the lively pace up before the band’s staple “Fucking Boyfriend” and “Polite Dance Song” wrapped the set up. On paper, they seemed a recipe for tedium, but in actualization they were fun and warmed up the crowd nicely.
“And I didn’t understand / When you reached out and take my hand”
Building on this momentum, breakthrough fan favorites She & Him played a decently full set comprised of material culled from both of their albums (Volume 1 & Volume 2) and also several covers. The duo’s Zooey Deschanel sang lead and bounced happily with a tambourine while guitarist M. Ward looked cool and deftly plucked out complex solos. The songs were brief, but Deschanel’s super sweet vocal style conjuring greats of vintage 60s pop enraptured with each passing song. A cover of NRBQ’s “Ridin’ in my Car” started things off on the right foot and with the songs “Over It Over Again” and “Take it Back” She & Him started to find the pulse of the room. Their backing band stripped away temporarily, Ward and Deschanel performed truly as a duo, playing their sweet rendition of The Miracles classic “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.” While M. Ward holds down the music and strums with precision, Deschanel’s effortless cuteness is the band’s secret weapon. As she sweetly rolls out each syllable she smiles or gazes with wide eyes; it’s hard not to like her. She’s amazingly charismatic and alluring. “This is Not a Test” and “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” help the set really take flight and then the one-two punch of Ward’s upbeat take on Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins brilliant “I Put a Spell on You.” On the latter Deschanel stretched out her vocals and hit notes that indicate much of her standard approach to singing belies just how talented she actually is.
“And if you have something to say, / you better say it now”
If those two sets weren’t enough, The Swell Season’s Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard finished the night off with a set stunning in its beauty. Opening with only the duo proper they sang a scorching cover of Tim Buckley’s “Buzzin’ Fly.” Hansard strummed furiously at his trademark semi-busted guitar so maniacally so that the whole valley where the Bowl is nestled rumbled with the sound of the bass strings slapping. The band joined them after this, delicately backing the duo with light taps on the drums and a proper brass section for “Low Rising,” “In these Arms” and “The Rain” off their new record Strict Joy. “Lies” from the soundtrack to their smash hit Once was next. Each note sang providing a sterling example of their otherworldly chemistry. Hansard’s rich sneer and Irglová’s ghostly timbre balance to a warm, soothing tone, rivaling the harmony of Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley or even the lush harmonies of The Eagles.
“Cause this is what you’ve waited for / Your chance to even up the score”
The music they’ve created together simultaneously purges the darkest misgivings and champions the hopes of a brighter future. It folds rejection and sorrow into sheer optimism through a love of release, harmony and romance. Digging deeply into this pondering, “If You Want Me,” “Leave” and “Back Broke” each delivered heaping helpings of heartfelt introspection. Irglová switched from piano to guitar with Hansard and sorrowfully sang her essential track, “If You Want Me.” All left the stage for Hansard as he howled a tear-jerking pitch-perfection performance of “Leave,” calling the closing refrain, “Let go of my heart / You’ve said what you have to now leave” with such intensity that it could send chills down your spine. With the band now returned to the stage, “Back Broke” on the other hand appeared to chart the turbulent collapse of a great love affair.
“And as these shadows fall on me now / I will somehow, yeah”
Hansard, a well-documented fan of Van Morrison introduced a cover of “Into the Mystic” for the next song and then returned the center stage position to Irglová for the meditative and apologetic “I Have Loved You Wrong.” From there, they returned to material from Once, closing out the first part of the set with the explosive “When Your Mind’s Made Up” and the gorgeous “Falling Slowly.” The former lit up the night with its plunging piano and arresting crescendo while the latter flawlessly displayed the emotional power that can be tied to an expertly crafted song, the music and words both illuminated the love, loss and need for hope behind the song itself. It would be no simple feat topping those three songs in any encore. The good news is, The Swell Season saved the best for last.
“Cause I’m picking up the message Lord / I’m closer than I’ve ever been before”
After a venue-wide standing ovation, Hansard returned armed with his guitar and introduced the next song as a sort-of “full circle” moment for him. He explained that many years earlier he had busked “Say It to Me Now” on Third Street and even met a nice girl as a result of it. He detailed how on many subsequent visits him and Irglová dreamed of performing in Los Angeles on the top of the bill. With that he dedicated the song to those folks who had been there at earlier stages of his career in Los Angeles and also to “everyone in the back” looking up to the very far distance of the Hollywood Bowl. The words, “And as these shadows fall on me now / I will somehow / ‘Cause I’m picking up the message Lord / I’m closer than I’ve ever been before,” screamed with such authenticity that you could feel the ocean of experiences between the point they were written over fifteen years ago and now when their self-fulfilling prophecy was coming true. The full band returned one last time to join Hansard on an impromptu change-up to the set closer. They opted to finish with yet another jaw-dropping cover, an enamored take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive all Night.” Upon wrapping the song’s joyful declaration, “You’ve got my love,” they segued seamlessly into a traditional Irish ode of farewell entitled “The Parting Glass.” Donning a tint more of his country’s native accent Hansard rolled out the lyrics, “And all I’ve done for want of wit / to mem’ry now I can’t recall / So fill to me the parting glass / Good night and joy be with you all.” Before ending with the audience joining him on those last eight words, he offered this one nugget of wisdom to conclude the evening. That this song was played mostly at an Irish wake, that they sang at the end of the wake and imagined the departed in the middle of the room and that they would impart a message to the room “No anger. No Fear. No Regrets.” They would imagine a heart-warming message of uplifting goodness in spite of all sadness and loss. “Good night and joy be with you all,” were the words that echoed through the last seconds of the night as the band looked upon another roaring standing ovation.
“So if you have something to say, / say it to me now” – Glen Hansard
Simply put, this set was so strong that most aspiring musicians should take note. This was real heart and passion. A set filled with pure unadulterated sincerity both artistically and in terms of performance. And in such sincerity their message was clear: to pursue one’s ambition with confidence, to find joy in the darkest pits of despair and to refuse to let any darkness rob you of your happiness. A sentiment that is admirable through and through.