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Concert Review: The Swell Season at Mesa Arts Center

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By Lindsey Holder

I'm not sure how many bands I saw last night. ...maybe three-ish? The ticket said The Swell Season, but the show was more like The Swell Season, Glen Hansard, The Frames, and a combination of the three. I figured it would be fairly straightforward, with songs from The Swell Season's newest album, Strict Joy, mixed with songs from the Grammy-nominated, Oscar-winning soundtrack to the movie Once, but at any given time, it was difficult to tell who was being featured.

It's a little long-winded to explain the relationship between all these bands, but here goes: Hansard is the frontman for Irish band The Frames. He was cast as the male lead in the 2007 film Once with Markéta Irglová, a story about love and the creation and production of music. Since the film, Hansard and Irglová have been performing as The Swell Season (in the movie, neither the band nor the characters had names). As The Swell Season has been touring, they brought along the rest of the members of The Frames as their backup band. So performing last night at Mesa Arts Center was a mish-mash of different bands and voices, along with plugs for solo albums by two of the members of The Frames. See? Tricky.

Perhaps because of that, there was a lack of cohesion between all the parts on stage. The Frames have been together for 17 years and have an undeniable chemistry, and during certain songs Hansard appeared to be playing with only them while Irglová sat motionless and alone at her piano, back to the audience. At other times, the ragged folk music being performed required a connection between Hansard and Irglová and The Frames took the backseat. A number of songs featured Hansard alone on stage with only a guitar, and for a few songs, Irglová herself took the reins, playing guitar and singing center stage while Hansard sat at her piano, playing and singing backup.

Hansard's guitar, terribly worn and riddled with holes, has likely played more shows than Irglová, only 21 years old, whose stage presence was lacking. Though she is a phenomenal pianist with an angelic, wispy voice that balances out Hansard's gritty, pleading vocals, she was frequently relegated to the role of a backup singer and accompanist instead of an equal member of the group. However, during the songs in which she sung the lead, she was charming, controlled, and captivating, rather than the shrinking violet she appeared at all other times.

The music was beautifully arranged and performed, but the interplay between the people on stage made me feel like I was at an awkward family gathering. Hansard spent a lot of time between songs telling jokes and stories, but it was rather like he was diffusing the awkwardness by having the audience focus on him, since he has enough charisma on his own for ten Irglovás. Ultimately, I suppose, the show was about the music, but I just couldn't get past the uncomfortable mix of all the different musicians coming together on one stage, which tempered my perception of the show as a whole. If I want to hear The Swell Season in the future, I'll listen to their album or pop Once into the DVD player, but I don't think I'll be seeing their show again soon. After all, Thanksgiving is approaching, and that's all the awkward family tension anyone could possibly need.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: The Swell Season at Mesa Arts Center.

Personal Bias: I actually like the band quite a bit. "Falling Slowly" certainly deserves its Academy Award, and "Feeling the Pull" from the new album forces me to smile each time I hear it.

Better Than: Hearing the same songs performed by most other Oscar winners. Nicolas Cage, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Martin Scorsese, take your pick (just not Christopher Walken. He would have been awesome.).

Random Fact: Only 19 at the time, Markéta Irglová was the youngest person ever to win an Academy Award in a musical category.

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