by / December 18th, 2009 /

The Swell Season – Vicar Street, Dublin

Few Irish people have divided opinion over the past 10 years quite like Glen Hansard. Lauded by the indie community circa 2001 and with the release of For The Birds, Hansard has now become something of a Bono-figure for sections of the same army that catapulted The Frames towards huge shows at The Point and Marley Park in the early Noughties. You either love him or you don’t, and while Bono has become caricatured by his preaching on Africa, Hansard has been similarly pillared for his onstage ramblings on the likes of -D for Dog’ and -Make Art’.

Tonight though, there’s nothing but love in the room for the Ballymun boy who did good. Arriving onstage sporting a beard and a multi-coloured woolly cap, Hansard and his Swell Season cohort, Marketa Irglova, proceed to sit on the stage floor as they open with -Fallen From The Sky’, from the Once Soundtrack. -Lies’ follows before The Frames join The Swell Season couple on stage.

Receiving a rapturous welcome, the arrival of Hansard’s main band mates means that the gig begins to take a turn. Yes, the setlist remains focussed on material recorded under the Hansard/Irglova and Swell Season moniker, but the feeling becomes increasingly of a Frames show with Irglova in tow. No bad thing necessarily, but you begin to feel for Irglova who seems increasingly marginalised within the duo’s project. Hansard himself has admitted that during recording sessions for Strict Joy, the second Swell Season album, it felt at times like he was making a Frames record. The merchandise stand is even stocking more Frames t-shirts than it is Swell Season.

But this is, of course, a homecoming show and so an amalgamation of all aspects of Hansard’s career is more than welcome, and perhaps expected. For the majority of the set – and though the material may bare more than a hint of The Frames about it -the focus remains on Strict Joy material, and renditions of -Low Rising’, the galloping -Feeling The Pull’ and -The Rain’ follow. With each song, Hansard joyfully interacts with his band mates, often with his back to Irglova. At one point he speaks of ‘his best mates’ making a gesture to include all but Irglova. This may all be coincidental, and unintentional, yet it feeds into those looking for tension within the pair’s onstage relationship following their public off-stage break-up. At one point this tension is heightened when Hansard introduces -In These Arms’ as ‘a song about an ex-girlfriend’ and goes on to practically say that the ex in question is Irglova to ‘oohhs’ from the audience. Irglova looks horrified.

With her backing vocal constantly low in the mix, the other half of The Swell Season is eventually afforded some of the spotlight when she takes centre stage with -If You Want Me’, while -Fantasy Man’, with it’s lyrics of ‘the forces that swept us both away were too strong for us to fight’, sees her air her side to the pairs break-up. It also indicates that Irglova has begun to find her feet as a songwriter in her own right. A period of Hansard on his own follows and continues the focus on his Swell Season work, while taking in a storming version of Van Morrison’s -Astral Weeks’.

Irglova and The Frames return for -Once’ and an epic -When Your Mind’s Made Up’ before all are joined onstage, for the first encore, by a choir from Ballymun’s Holy Spirit National School, where Hansard himself was schooled. Given the festive season, it’s a nice touch, and they take some of the -Oscar song’ focus off -Falling Slowly’, allowing it to nestle into its place as one of the signature Irish songs of the decade. The boys’ choir stay put for a lively -High Horses’ and an emotive -Star Star’, which allows Irglova’s vocal talents to suitably shine as the songs bleeds into -Silent Night’. It marks a moment, which Hansard grasps with both hands. A special gig is about to become even more so and a real celebratory nature takes hold. We may have reached closing time for the majority of concerts in the city, yet there’s no stopping Hansard now.

A Frames best of ensues beginning with Mic Christopher’s -Heyday’ and followed by a welcome return of -Revelate’. -The Stars Are Underground’, -God Bless Mom’ and -Lay Me Down’ only serve to heighten appetites for Hansard to fully re-commit to his day job. It’s clear that the front man is having the most fun when running through this material. A two-and-a-half-hour set closes first with -Fitzcaraldo’, before a visibly moved Hansard expresses his joy at a triumphant return home with a sean-nós version of -The Parting Glass’, dedicated to Liam Clancy. It marks a fitting end to a fine homecoming, which often felt like four gigs wrapped in one. Where Hansard goes from here, is going to be interesting. If anything, tonight heightened his evident desire to break free of having to channel material through the restrictions of The Swell Season. The project looks like having a short life span. Hansard’s already foaming at the mouth to make a new Frames record. It’s going to be an interesting few years.

Photos by Sara Devine.

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