Glen Hansard/ The Swell Season at the Riverside Theater

Posted on May 9, 2008 by


Glen Hansard leapt up on stage with just his guitar; no mic, no band, just him and his powerful voice singing “Say It To Me Now,” the way his busking character did in the movie “Once.” That set the tone for the rest of the night, where it seemed that Hansard and his partner, Markéta Irglová, were playing out the movie’s sequel, except live, right in front of us, in downtown Milwaukee.Glen Hansard

Even the small things, like the way Hansard pronounced things as “tings,” the way he did in the movie, or Irglova’s dowdy outfit (c’mon, a polka-dotted, shin-length red skirt and a cardigan top?) recalled the big screen.


And let’s just get this out of the way now: technically, the sound was perfect, the band was perfect, Hansard and Irglova’s voices were perfect. No doubt about it, this was a well-tuned, well-practiced machine of a performing band. (It makes sense; Wikipedia says Hansard has been busking on streets since he was 13).

But the thing about technically perfect performances is that it leaves you with a lot of time to mull over the non-technical details, like how Hansard’s passionate performance was intense, but in between songs…well, he talked a lot. He tuned his guitar a lot. And then he talked again. And just when you thought his story was over, he would go off tangent and talk some more.

It made you wonder if he was acting out a role — extending his charming, passionate character some more — or if he was really that way.

Glen Hansard's guitar

And I don’t mean that in a bad way; it was entertaining and fascinating. The most beautiful thing about a man and his guitar is that the seeds of creation are transparent — instead of hearing blips and glitches made by fiddling with knobs, you have an idea of just what a song sounded like from inception. A very clear blue print, if you may, of the creative process. With the running commentary (every song started out with “this song is about…”) it was kind of like seeing God in action. If God were to explain the reason he made grass soft and spikey, or why the moon looks like a sliver of a thumbnail once a month.

Except for the flawless performances, the night was a loose, roly-poly evening. Sometimes Hansard took the audience to the street, asking them to sing or yell or whisper along at every opportunity. Other times it had a sit-around-a-campfire vibe, with him telling ghost stories. And throughout the night, it was interesting to see the relationship dynamic of the couple, manifested through their performance.

The Swell Season

Irglova and Hansard fell in love during the making of “Once”; he is 37 and she is 19. Onstage you could see that Irglova is Hansard’s protege. She sang solo on a new song “about forgiving” and began introducing it the way he did, trying to be funny and verbose — but failed miserably. Hansard, savvy in the art of stage banter, was interesting even when being chatty. Irglova was just…awkward. Luckily, that awkwardness didn’t translate to the song, which was performed beautifully. (And her accent was so cute! Like in the movie! “Fuck you batteries!”)

Marketa Irglova

And although Swell Season is marketed as Irglova and Hansard, it was totally just Hansard’s show. He loved the stage and cherished spending time with the audience. It was as evident on his solo numbers to the rousing songs he performed with his whole band, which included everyone harmonizing as well — even the violinist. (“When Your Mind’s Made up” was one of the night’s  many highlights.) Irglova and Hansard’s voices were so warm and soothing, like a bed to lie down in.

swell season with the whitefish bay choir

The real high point of the night came when the band brought out an eighth-grade choir of kids from WhiteFish Bay to sing “Falling Slowly” with them. Apparently they had emailed the band and asked them to watch the choir perform while in Milwaukee; Hansard proposed that they sing it onstage with them instead. It was a gimmick, but it worked GREAT. So great, in fact that Hansard did an impromptu cover of the Pixies song “Gigantic” with the choir as well. (He said, “this is a song about the love between a white woman and a big black man.” Not very politically correct, considering the children behind him. But he’s Irish, so maybe that can be forgiven. He also compared the kids to the characters of the Judd Apatow show “Freaks And Geeks,” which they had been watching in their tour bus.

Swell Season

The band played for two hours, playing most of the hits from the movie and test-driving a couple of new songs. Throughout the performance, Hansard’s stamina did not wane. The audience lapped up the whole confessional, singer-songwriter schtick that Hansard mastered so well. There was the tale of his Goth girlfriend agreeing to be buried with him when they were 16 years old. There was the recurring theme of heart vs. head. There was even a story about how his Oscar ended up with his mother, and how she used it like a back stage pass. The audience lapped up every (long) story, but I wondered how much of his personal life was left for himself. Didn’t he get tired of sharing EVERYTHING?

Glen Hansard

I came to the conclusion that Hansard is ultra-talented but I would kill myself if he were my boyfriend. He seems too emotional, too needy, too generous with his love and time and stories. It manifested in every way during the show: almost everyone in his band had some time in the spotlight, either perform solo on their instruments or singing songs by themselves. He asked the audience to sing along, even to songs they’d never heard before (here’s a lyric: “the L triangle went jingle jangle all along the banks”). He listened to requests.

His opening act, the gigantic Damian Dempsey, said that the first time he saw Hansard perform, all the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He called them musical orgasms. Hansard is totally capable of giving people MMO’s (multiple musical orgasms), but, as in real life, at some point you just want to go to sleep.