The Swell Season, Vienna Museumsquartier, 10 February 2010

Absolutely wonderful evening of passionate, finely wrought folk rock from the gifted Glen Hansard and his group. And yes, this is very much Hansard’s night, despite solo turns from Marketa Irglova and the violinist. Their spots were very pretty, but you just wanted him to take centre stage again and electrify the place. Which he did, with every single song.

Where on earth have The Swell Season sprung from? In the first place, this concert was sold out weeks in advance and I only just managed to secure tickets. I’d never been to Halle E of the Museumsquartier before, and I thought it was going to be some cosy little theatre. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find that it was far, far bigger than I had expected, with rows of seats going way back and a huge buzz around the room. I guess this is an example of (richly deserved) success being gained through word of mouth rather than hype; granted I’m not exactly an avid consumer of entertainment media, but I’m unaware of any huge promotional effort being made by, about or around this group. Hansard’s other outfit, The Frames, aren’t exactly megastars either, so I can’t imagine that the audience for this show consisted mostly or even largely of Frames fans. And as for Once, the film that first brought Hansard and Irglova to the attention of the wider public – was it really that much of a success? I never tire of telling anyone who will listen (and many who won’t) that I saw the film at the cinema well before its Oscar success (see here), but it’s plainly one of those films that has had a long afterlife on DVD.

In any event, Hansard is a stunningly powerful singer, songwriter and guitarist. His voice has this quality of epic yearning fuelled by the passion of his songs and by the flawless musicians around him. He exudes a ragged intimacy with his beat-up old guitar and warm-hearted, likeable stage presence – but there’s absolutely nothing perfunctory or indifferent about his performance. A solo version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” was powered by unbelievably fast-paced and frenzied guitar work, while another solo song was taken off-mike, taking the entire audience into rapt silence. A good-natured, tongue-in-cheek encore of “Rock Me Amadeus” brought the audience to its feet, while the last song saw Hansard tearing at his guitar with such force that every string was broken. Having no more to give, having given so much, the concert ended – an evening of endless exquisite highs, and an early contender for show of the year.

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