The Swell Season @ Alys Stephens Center, Birmingham, AL, 26 May 2010 (review)

Normally, I prefer recorded music to the live alternative.  My girlfriend and I differ greatly here — she, I think, backs the intensity and rawness of an in-the-moment performance, where as I really like the feeling of something that is larger than life, through layering and production.  The very nature of live performance, I’ve always thought, makes a cinematic experience improbable at best — think of the difference between the potentials and possibilities of theater and film.

And then along comes Swell Season.  The band is not one that I was familiar with (although I’m not sure how that’s even possible) — singer-guitarist Glen Hansard and singer-pianist Markéta Irglová play a sort of folky storytelling reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.  Just this morning, I’ve learned through the magic of Wikipedia that they toured together, shot a movie called Once, fell in love, won an Academy Award, fell out of love, made more music… It’s not your usual overnight-success rock band story.

I went into the night with absolutely no expectations — I purposefully and uncharacteristically avoided exposing myself to their music beforehand. Normally I like to have some sort of aural anchor for the evening, so at least I’m on familiar ground, but the girlfriend encouraged me to try it differently for this one. I’m glad I did — not that their recorded versions are bad, but the band is enough out of my usual alley that I might have missed out on the big picture of the experience.

Opener Justin Townes Earle played a set of what my brain insists on calling Stephen King’s soundtrack — the kind of music that would fit perfectly over the childhood scenes in IT or Christine, tunes that make me think of radio shows in the 1950s midwest. Usually, the support act sets the tone for the evening, and so my brain was being pulled in the wrong direction completely for Swell Season, who came out after an intermission.

I had a really hard time describing this to the girlfriend in our post-show wrap-up discussion, and I’m fairly certain that I’m still not going to be able to put it into words, but: for the most part, the next two hours was one of only two cinematic live concerts that I’ve ever experienced.  It was a perfect storm combination of the players’ abilities, the sound engineer’s work, and the acoustics of the Alys Stephens Center hall that turned the show into an immersive experience, especially on the more dynamic songs.

A lot of what it boils down to is dynamics and space.  There’s a real magic to letting each song build through volume and attack (or lack thereof) and intensity, and Swell Season have that mastered.  The individual instruments and voices ebbed and flowed from the spotlight, gradually coming to and leaving the focus instead of jumping sharply in and out.  Each instrument had it’s own place in space, clear and precise — and still the emphasis was on the overall picture and combination of sounds. It was the live performance equivalent of Seal’s second album (1994)*, something I never would have imagined possible.

I’d give you a set list, but since I don’t know the band… Some standout moments of the night, though, included Falling Slowly (the song from Once that won the Oscar), In These Arms, Backbroke, and Glen’s solo encore performance of Leave, sung from the side of the stage with no microphone — spine-chillingly intense. It was a night that deserves, unlike so many others, the description “magic.”

* This is the description that gets me funny looks all the time.  It’s a production thing. Trevor Horn is a genius.  Listen to it a lot.

Chris O’Brien @ Red Cat, Birmingham, AL, 15 May 2010 (review)

The best thing about dating someone who is as passionate about music as I am — and who has a lot of tastes that vary differently from mine — is discovering new music, often defying expectations (my own, I should note).

I had heard some of Chris O’Brien’s tracks from my girlfriend, and was non-plussed.  The tracks aren’t bad, not at all — but it’s folk-ish, singer/songwriter type stuff, not really in my wheelhouse. The lyrics are good, but it took me a while to get into those (I’m much more music oriented than lyrical).  But he’s been to Birmingham twice before, and he’s got a hometown connection with my girlfriend, so we decided to go.

It was a great choice. We got there a little early (there were various times listed for the show start, from 8 to 9 PM, and we erred on the side of early), so we caught Hannah Miller and Emily Lynch, two songwriters that played a dual set, alternating every two songs or so. Not bad — Emily was less enjoyable for me, leaning a bit more country, but Hannah has a really nice smoky voice and a good feel for chord voicings.

They finished up, and Chris took the stage… and then got off the stage. Since there were only ten or so of us in the audience, Chris took his guitar and sat on a table in the middle of the coffee shop.  I’m not sure if it was the more intimate feel, or the stripped-down versions of his songs, but the night was really engaging and provocative in a way that I never would have expected. It was a good mix of material from both his discs — he put a lot of life into his old material (hard to do when you play it all the time) and seemed really excited and familiar with his newer stuff.

Chris is on tour right now — make sure if you have a chance you check him out, whether you are a fan of the genre or not.  His songs are moving and meaningful, and he’s got a really good stage presence as well that keeps you there during the breaks. It’s a show well worth your while.

The Music of the World Around Me

I have a tendency to always be listening to music.  In the car, at home, at work — even when I sleep. It’s an addiction worse than many — I just can’t get enough. It’s my last vestige of my own world, of shutting everything else out and withdrawing into my own head, even as I keep pushing forward through the rigors of the day.

Sometimes, though, whether intentionally or not, I find myself in silence.  But even in the silence, there’s music, if you know how to listen.

For a rhythm, there’s street machinery, or the passing of cars at rush hour, or a dripping faucet.  There’s melody everywhere, in the pitches of running appliances or car alarms in the distance or animals. Wind blowing through drafty windows or the cooing of a neighbor’s baby act as occasional fills, adding to the melody.

It’s all about perception — how you see things, how you hear things, how you choose to experience the world around you. You can find solace in the quiet, a moment of peace — or you can find your own new symphony.

How To Destroy Angels

Trent Reznor wasn’t gone long.  His new project, How To Destroy Angels, is a collaboration with his wife Mariqueen Maandig, and if the first release is any indication, it’ll be a return to form (with less anger and destruction of instruments, one would assume).  Great atmosphere here — the slow pulse and spacious piano reminds me a lot of my favorite Nine Inch Nails pieces like “The Day The World Went Away” and “La Mer.”

Check out “A Drowning” at