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.