The Swell Season

An enchanting evening at the Opera House brings the Belfast Festival to a close

If Glen Hansard’s endearingly battered guitar could speak, it surely would have plenty of tales to tell. 

An immensely talented troubadour, Hansard is always a joy to watch, whether playing the role of a hapless band member in the 1991 film The Commitments, a dreaming busker in John Carney's Once, appearing as front-man of The Frames or in his current incarnation as leader of The Swell Season. 

Tonight he mesmerizes the capacity crowd at the Grand Opera House during the closing night of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival.

The Swell Season has seen Hansard take a sideways step away from The Frames to collaborate with Czech chanteuse, Marketa Irglova. Since their eponymous debut was released in 2005, Hansard and Irglova have enjoyed global acclaim, buoyed by the success of their starring roles in the multi-award winning film Once

For this spellbinding show, the affable duo are joined on stage by members of The Frames, which surely pleases the band’s loyal fans hoping for a future reunion.

It would appear that the Grand Opera House’s pantomime season has already commenced, as before The Swell Season have even played a note they are welcomed to the Belfast stage with chants of 'I love you Glen' and 'I love you more Glen' amusingly ringing out from the floor. 

With these amorous advances amiably cast aside, the set opens tenderly with the beautiful ‘This Low’, followed by ‘The Moon’, a new track introduced in typical anecdotal style, with Hansard describing it as a song about going off life’s path and spending two years ‘on the drink’.

Proceedings progress with a welcome sprinkling of songs from Once. A stirring performance of ‘Falling Slowly’ offers one of the most moving and memorable moments of the night. As the other band members exit, Hansard and Irglova command the venue with an enchanting and intense rendition of the Academy Award winning song. Every lyric is delivered with emotion and belief against a beautifully lit backdrop of twinkling stars. An undoubted highlight.

When a show reaches such an early zenith, however, it’s difficult not to ponder how these heady entertainment levels will be surpassed or even maintained. But when a lone Hansard launches into an unplugged version of ‘Say It To Me Now’ and plays the life out of that battered guitar, it’s clear that this will be an evening of superlatives. 

This Frames classic is followed up by another powerful new song, ‘Back Broke’, and an immense version of Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ marred by technical difficulties, which Hansard mischievously suggests may have been instigated by a disapproving Morrison himself.

Hansard admits to being a huge fan of Van The Man and acknowledges him as one of his song-writing muses alongside Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Hansard relays his enthusiasm for performing in the Grand Opera House (a venue that Morrison recorded in) and, backed by the entire band, launches into another new track, ‘Low Rising’ as an homage to his Belfast hero.

Undoubtedly Hansard is the fulcrum of The Swell Season, constantly engaging with the audience, revealing the nuances of his songwriting and unveiling the tales behind the tracks. Although many of those in attendance are probably familiar with the charming Dubliner, it is his musical other half that they are perhaps more intrigued by. When Irglova gets her opportunity to shine, she certainly endears herself to the crowd.

Watching Irglova tinkling on a Steinway piano during an astounding rendition of ‘The Hill’, it is bewildering to think that such a petite figure can so masterfully command such a vast stage, usually brimming with lavish sets and chorus-lines. It's easy to see why Hansard has dedicated the last two years of his career to working so closely with her. From the pair’s fleeting glances and heartfelt exchanges, it is evident that she has established herself as Hansard's chief muse.

As proceedings come to a close, Frames fans are treated to a dose of nostalgia with a rousing version of 'Fitzcarraldo'. A sing-along rendition of ‘People Get Ready’ fittingly closes the night, reminding us that we have all the time in the world to get it right – a mantra that certainly represents The Swell Season’s manifesto.

Ailís Corey