What a difference a hit movie makes.
As the frontman of Irish band the Frames, Glen Hansard had struggled for 17 years to break into the American market, and last winter, the Swell Season, his side project with Czech singer Marketa Irglova, were opening for Damien Rice. Since then, the Irish pic “Once,” in which Hansard and Irglova star and for which they provide the music, has become a sleeper hit — the Fox Searchlight release has grossed more than $6 million domestically — and the two musician-actors, performing as the Swell Season, are headlining their own tour.
At Wednesday’s sold-out stop at the El Rey, the aud included enough celebs to keep Defamer’s “Privacywatch” column in bold-faced names for days.
The 90-minute show–a series of Hansard’s lovelorn ballads and Irglova’s middle-European-influenced laments drawn from the film’s soundtrack (Sony) and their self-titled debut (Overcoat) –hewed closely to the offhand intimacy and shambling charm of the film (even the cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus,” with a narrator seated among the broken furniture of a relationship, fit the show’s mood).
Seated for most of the night and playing the battered guitar he uses onscreen, and performing without a rhythm section (Hansard and Ir-glova are accompanied by Thomas Bartlett on various keyboards), Swell Season keeps the emotional temperature at a simmer (“Your mind’s made up,” they sing in one of the evening’s, and soundtrack’s, best songs, “and there’s no use talking”); only slowly do they come to a boil, as Hansard hits the chords more sharply and his voice — for the most part a warm tenor that sits somewhere between those of Damien Rice (who was invited onstage to play a song during the encore) and Cat Stevens — turns ragged and harsh.
Onstage, Hansard has the same appealingly self-deprecating personality of his unnamed character in “Once,” as does Irglova, who is fetch-ing, although quite serious and shy. Their voices come together in achingly beautiful, bittersweet, unresolved harmonies. But oddly, their live performance feels less intimate than seeing them onscreen.
Part of the problem is that for most of the set, they were halfway across the stage from each other, with Irglova’s piano between them. She did sit next to him for “Drown Out.” At one point Hansard leaned forward, slightly dipping his head toward hers, smiled and started singing, and the moment was magical.