A full four years back, the Oscar-winning duo The Swell Season headlined the Hollywood Bowl. To say their performance gave us chills would be an understatement. In a year crowded with incredible performances, that show was probably the single best one we saw that year. The duo of singers/songwriters Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had uncanny chemistry, playing a show with startling passion and heart. The grou-p somewhat on hiatus (and the musical inspired by the brilliant film they starred in Once now also a box-office and Tony-winning smash) Hansard and Irglova both have shifted their efforts mostly to solo work. Tonight, on the same stage he owned four years back Hansard returned to headline solo in a bill supported by Iron & Wine and The Head and the Heart.
Curiously, Iron & Wine was up first on the bill. More specifically, the artist himself Sam Beam was front-and-center solo, armed only with an acoustic guitar. Beam joked at the beginning of his set, “Welcome to the bento box of bearded dudes.” Beam playfully strummed through about thirty-five minutes worth of material, occasionally taking shouted requests from the crowd. “The Boy with the Coin,” got things started early on a soothing note. Beam joked with the crowd about playing to a crowd notoriously invested in their dinners at this point of the night quipping, “That’s for all the couples in the restaurant tonight.” Beam’s performance was solid, but there’s something about solo acoustic singer-songwriter that’s just really hard to make exciting. Without a voice or lyrical talent that just knocks the audience off its feet, after three or four songs it just gets a bit boring. “The Trapeze Swinger” and “Flightless Bird, American Mouth” both were solid cuts, but this seemed to be just an appetizer for the headliner to come.
The Head and the Heart came next, and similarly didn’t quite deliver real emotional power. mxdwn has been big fans of The Head and the Heart for years, but the group’s three singers Josiah Johnson, Jonathan Russell and Charity Rose Thielen while able to soothingly harmonize together, never quite jumped off the page. “Coeur D’Alene” and “Ghosts” started the show off, the band melding indie folk and bar-band blues rock. Thielen got perhaps the greatest cheer of the night, singing the bridge in “Winter Song.” Singer Jonathan Russell happily indicated that the band apparently had even more time than expected and at this point had a whopping four more songs to perform. It’s hard to say not being backstage and hearing what the stage managers were discussing, but this may have been the cause of a larger error that played out to negative effect during Hansard’s headlining set. For an opening act, The Head and the Heart’s set felt about twenty minutes longer than the usual band would have in the same spot. Still, the group ended strong with the climactic “Rivers and Roads” to a large ovation.
Finally, Glen Hansard took to center stage sporting what appeared to be the same broken acoustic he’s used since The Frames first rose to popularity. Hansard opened alone hammering out a monstrous rendition of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” its conclusion a massive crescendo with Hansard screaming “Don’t you point that finger at me no.” From there, Hansard opened warmly encouraging the crowd to sing along stating, “When you’re singing from the heart there are no wrong notes.” Hansard’s full band joined him for “Philander.” Along with the standard bass, drums and guitar players, the group also included a keyboardist, a four-person string section and a three-person brass section. The sound was brighter with a lush tapestry of elements, far more intricate than any permutation he’s performed with in recent years. Another Rhythm and Repose track came next, “Talking With the Wolves,” a song Hansard introduced as being inspired by some of his earliest adventures in Los Angeles. Next, “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” was elongated into a fun cover of the Aretha Franklin standard “Respect.”
Only one song by The Swell Season was played in the set, the explosive “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” For those curious, Marketa Irglova did not make an appearance either. “Her Mercy” sang of the need for forgiveness. And then as the penultimate number, the band did a dead-on cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It.” Hansard noted at this point that the clock on the stage indicated they were completely out of time. He pressed forward in spite of the risk of violating the notoriously strict curfew of the venue. They closed out with a joyous finale on the Irish standard “The Auld Triangle.” The song alternates between short verses and the refrain, “And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle All along the banks of the Royal Canal.” Hansard traded passages with several of his band members, Sam Beam, the three singers from The Head and the Heart and even actor Chris O’Dowd. There’s no denying it, the set felt like it was only halfway started, and Hansard looked a bit frustrated as well. For someone with Hansard’s range, passion and catalog, it almost feels like it would be better for him to play without openers. Nobody would have complained if Hansard had done a three-hour version of this set.