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The Swell Season + Bill Callahan

(24 Sep 2008: Ryman Auditorium — Nashville, TN)

Anyone that’s ever stepped foot in Nashville, Tennessee knows the Ryman Auditorium is a place of myth, magic, and miracles. Needless to say, there is a certain amount of expectation when an artist plays among the ghosts of country music—they’re playing to a higher power than just the audience in capacity. For the stars of the recent unexpected hit movie, Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (playing under the name the Swell Season and featuring Hansard’s bandmates from the Frames), playing the legendary Opry stage is almost unfitting in a way. Nevertheless, the people that have walked the halls of the Ryman Auditorium were great songwriters and—regardless of genre—this seems to be the common theme shared by tonight’s performers.


Speaking of great songwriters, they picked one of the best to open the set—Mr. Bill Callahan of Smog fame. Unfortunately, the respect and admiration given to Callahan was sub-par, and fans of the Swell Season just didn’t quite get Callahan’s dry humor. Not to say I didn’t quite expect this, but it would’ve been nice to not hear two guys, one wearing a popped collar mind you, talking about this guy’s “terrible voice”. So it goes. On a brighter note, Callahan played a set consisting of some of his greatest tracks, and sang those oh so wonderful lyrics that made an audience (those that were actually listening) blush. He tends to do that. “Cold Blooded Old Times” and “Dress Sexy at My Funeral” were among the set of songs, which were played with a minimalist musical backing of just drums and guitar. We even got to see him get down on one knee and pull off his version of an epic guitar solo—one note wailed over and over through a shitty fuzz pedal. If anything, I was glad to see a man that has been largely underrated his entire career play a revered place like the Ryman.


As for the Swell Season, I was pleasantly surprised with their set, just as I was by the songs that built the backbone of the Oscar-winning film Once. Not only did the songs sound fantastic in a room built for their instrumentation, the band was also quite charming. Usually, the worst part about going to see a live show is a singer’s constant desire to ramble about insignificant details of their life in song. But Hansard strayed off the beaten path and told stories that weren’t just funny because he was the guy standing on the stage, but because they were relayed more as a friend sitting on the couch across from you.


The near two hour long set consisted of mostly Hansard in the spotlight, but every now and again Irglova came up to the front of the stage and strapped on a guitar. Not a storyteller of Hansard’s stature, she stood solemnly behind the microphone, hair in eyes and stiff as a board, yet the Czech-born singer managed to deliver a vocal strength despite her quiet decibel range. Live, and on record, Hansard and Irglova compliment each other perfectly, both weaving in and out of each other’s dynamic and melodic range.


Hasnard kicked the set off standing in the front of the Ryman, microphone aside, belting “Say It to Me Now” just as he did in the opening scene of Once. It was absolutely brilliant—the man can sing and has been singing his pipes off since he began playing with the Frames back in 1990. Surprisingly, the band got their “hit”, “Falling Slowly”, out of the way early, carving a path for a set of brand new songs as well as a selection of other cuts from the soundtrack. The crowd was astoundingly ecstatic about hearing new tracks, despite the bland nature of at least half of them. It was also quite interesting to realize that some of their well-known songs from the movie’s soundtrack lacked substance without the accompanying cinematic imagery.


These minor issues aside, the set was a success—and a band that used to play bars (minus Irglova) is seeing the bright lights they deserve. I’m sure the ghosts of country music would approve.

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