Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Swell Season at the Greek

Saturday night (October 4, 2008) overwhelmed the Los Angeles grid system with sports events, 2 music festivals, Neil Young at the Staples, the usual glut of local music and The Swell Season and Iron and Wine at the Greek. Trying to navigate the city was a nightmare apparently.

Going up to the Greek with friends in a car, we snaked our way up into Griffith Park and arrived just after Iron and Wine's Sam Beam began his set. This was a stripped down version of Iron and Wine with just Sam and one accompanist on slide guitar and piano. It was fascinating to hear songs I heard him perform last year with a full band at the Orpheum.

The simplified arrangements meant more emphasis on Sam's vocals, which he often buries in rich orchestrations with his full band. But here, he sang out loud and clear which changes every song to focus on the lyrics and Sam's wonderful guitar playing.

There were plenty of longtime fans in the audience who warmly recognized the older material, but he also sang many selections from the recent The Shepherd's Dog CD which everybody seems to know. He finished his set with the first song from that CD and members of The Frames came out to back up a new version which altered the tempo making the song wholly fresh and new. Very nice.

It was a great second exposure to Iron and Wine and since I had gotten my ticket as soon as they had gone on sale, I had a great seat in Section A. So close I only had to glance at the giant screen monitors a few times.

I walked around the venue during the break and The Greek really is a nice place to see bands that won't fit in smaller venues anymore. The grounds are pretty, the people management is great and no visible gestapo tactics by security.

The Swell Season enjoyed a triumphant return to Los Angeles as an exultant crowd welcomed them to the stage. I'd wondered whether Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had been working on new material so I was especially glad when they began with a song I didn't know.

Next up was their Academy Award winning song "Falling Slowly" from the movie Once, to satisfy the fans, but the third song, called "The Moon" was so stunning and beautiful, with an unbelievable harmony, that I was literally moved to tears.

The back up band was The Frames, Glen Hansard's other group, they're a great band on their own, but they provided superb support for The Swell Season. Performing a bunch of audience favorites from Once they liberally sprinkled the set with unfamiliar and new material.

Glen was having such a good time I think he purposely stretched the set out . He loves to tell little stories between songs, usually about the detours and barriers one encounters in life. He, obviously, has to reconcile the depressed Irishman and the optimistic musician within himself. He stood away from the mike and sang his street song from Once aloud to the enormous Greek amphitheatre like a street busker. I was amazed at how well he could be heard.

They also allowed other musicians a chance to shine. Their violin player came out and played a Debussy piece for us, in which he played and recorded and played back all the parts himself in a kind of Andrew Bird display of technical virtuosity. I believe it was the song "Lies" when Glen and Marketa were joined by the director of Once on bass to perform a stirring rendition of that strong, emotional number.

A truly inspiring, unexpected moment occurred after Glen recounted the tale of Marketa and his adventures in Los Angeles for the month of the Oscars in February of this year. The swirl of activity and the people they were introduced to made their heads swim, but one of the most memorable events was the very genuine encounter with a songwriter. When asked what he
had written and the reply was The Jungle Book, Glen's jaw hit the floor. He then brought Richard Sherman out onto the stage, and he proceeded to turn the audience into burbling children as he sat at the piano and played and sang "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious". He and his brother, Robert, won Oscars for Best Original Score for Mary Poppins and another one for Best Song for "Chim Chim Cheree" in 1964. It was a completely magical moment and also a uniquely Los Angeles one, too.

Then the band kept on playing, including a beautiful cover of Neil Young's "Out On the Weekend" from the Harvest album, which they invited Sam Beam out on stage to sing with them. It was a stunning version of a stunning song.

For the encores, Marketa came out alone, sat at the piano and hypnotized the audience with her two solo numbers form Once to a hushed and attentive crowd. She was a lovely vision in her simple red dress and her natural unadorned beauty.
The band reassembled to bring the very special evening to a close with a couple of final numbers.


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