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ONCE Movie Review & THE SWELL SEASON LIVE @ The Music Hall 11/23/07

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ONCE Movie Review & THE SWELL SEASON LIVE @ The Danforth Music Hall 11/23/07

Reviews by David "Jaimoe" Ball

[blurb]Low-budget Irish film Once has been an unlikely box-office hit after winning the World Cinema Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film festival. Its stars, musicians Glen Hansard (also leader of the Irish band The Frames) and teenage singer-pianist Markéta Irglová have in turn taken their big screen musical act on the road, calling themselves The Swell Season. I find it impossible to review last night’s SOLD-OUT Danforth Music Hall show without first mentioning the film from which spawned this tour.[/blurb]I urge all you romantics out there - or even fans of folk music and concerts – to go out and see Once in your local rep theatre or get the DVD when it comes out in December. You will not be disappointed. On the surface, Once is a simple story centred around a Dublin busker (Hansard) whose impassioned songs cast a spell on a young Czech woman (Irglová). Sweet and adorable Irglová casts spells of her own which leads to a deep unconventional relationship with Hansard woven almost solely through music. Once was shot in a linear fashion on a handheld camera in a near cinéma-vérité style for less than 80 thousand euros and was written and directed by ex-Frames bassist John Carney. All but one of the songs was shot live, the haunting Irglová-sung “If You Want Me” being the exception, and all are shown in their entirety (a rarity in music-based films). The tunes are all unforgettable as are the film’s two stars. Hansard in particular is one hell of a singer-songwriter and riveting on-screen live performer. The depth of the duo’s complex relationship is told through music instead of dialogue, especially through scenes featuring “Falling Slowly”, “If You Want Me”, the soul-bearing “Trying To Pull Myself Away” and film climax “When Your Mind’s Made Up". Hansard and Irglová’s shy rapport and intimate musical synergy is so emotional and engaging, that it creates one of the most honest and finest modern love stories I’ve ever seen.

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It’s a daunting task for this twosome to live-up to their big screen hype and praise night after night (or to live-up to The Frames musical legacy for that matter - Hansard's band for 17 years and counting), but I’m pleased to report that The Swell Season’s show on Friday was on par emotionally with the film and ranks as one of the best concerts of the year. An unaccompanied and grinning Glen Hansard jogged on stage at 9:30 sharp and quickly ripped into "Say It To Me Now", sounding more hopeful than the haggard busker version from Once’s memorable opening scene. Armed with his trademark “beat-to-hell” Takamine and strumming like his life depended on it, Hansard’s guitar is even more worn than Willie Nelson’s famous gouged Martin. Whatever sounds good, right? But Hansard’s real weapon is his powerful and emotive voice. The acoustic solo “Lies”, a stripped-down “When My Mind’s Made Up” and hit "Falling Slowly" were three of the night’s top set-pieces (the latter two tunes were fleshed-out by bassist Joseph Doyle and violinist Colin Mac Con Iomaire, members of The Frames who sat in periodically throughout the night) and perhaps best exemplify the charismatic Irishman's desperate straining vocal style and self-searching lyrics, qualities that distance Hansard from fellow Dubliner Damien Rice, for whom he is often compared. Actually, Hansard is more in-tune tone and style wise with contemporary singer-songwriters Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.) and Bright Eyes. Most new bands save their breakthrough song(s) for the end of the set or the encore, but Hansard and Irglová have enough confidence in their material that they can pull-off playing the beautiful “Falling Slowly” pretty early in the night. Their rendition wasn’t quite as intimate as the version from the film, although Hansard and Irglová's alluring vocal harmonies could've made George Bush and Bin Laden embrace, but the yearning love song has taken on a deeper meaning in recent months because the duo are now a real-life couple.

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A loud roar greeted the petite Irglová when she finally stepped out from behind her piano to take centre stage on her pretty good new tune, “Fantasy Man”. Markéta dedicated the song to ex-pat Czech writer Josef Skvorecky who emmigrated to Toronto in the late 60’s (after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). He wrote the novel The Swell Season (from whence they got their name), which Irglová proclaimed as “the best book I’ve ever read”. The Swell Season’s take on The Frames’ "What Happens When The Heart Just Stops” was another highlight, with Hansard seamlessly pasting a verse of Van Morrison’s “Caravan” to the end. Hansard then began a rambling story (he prefaced each song with a funny ancecdote) about his three musical heroes, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. This eventually led to a lively cover of “Into The Mystic”, helped out by opening act, the always eccentric Mary Margaret O'Hara (another hero of Hansard's). Hansard sounds a little bit like a young Morrison, but he delivered a moody version of Van "the Man"'s prettier Moondance cut. After a quick and well earned break, Hansard and Irglová (joined again by Doyle and Colin Mac Con Iomaire) saved the best for last with two Swell Season/Once tracks anchoring the four song encore, the gentle duet "Once" and Irglová's exceptional "If You Want Me", with her vulnerable voice sounding a hell of a lot like Björk but with a Czech accent mixed in with an odd Irish inflection. The set's final tune was “Star Star”, another great Frames cover that found bassist Doyle taking lead vocals for a couple of verses and he almost stole the show. I gotta get me some more Frames. The 100-minute concert was enchanting, full of inspired folk music, good natured heckling from adoring fans, some heartwarming stories involving a white dog, a couple of 14th century ghosts, Irish guilt and my favourite: the evils of Wal-Mart. Although the night had its share of uplifting music, my eyes failed to well-up with tears, unlike my Once screening. However, I dared not shed any or the would have froze to my cheeks. The Danforth Music Hall was fecking cold, but thankfully there was enough warmth emanating from the stage that I doubt anyone cared.

Once: ***** (out of 5)

Concert: **** 1/2 (out of 5)

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"Falling Slowly" has been nominated for Best Original Song at the upcoming Oscars.

They won and the performance was stellar. Waiting on the soundtrack in the mail.

Have you seen the movie then? If not, do not listen to the soundtrack until you see the movie. The impact of the songs will lessen if you listen to the soundtrack first.

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"Falling Slowly" isn't the best song on the album either, even though it's the centre-piece of the film. I think Oscar could have taken three songs off of Once and dropped those boring Enchanted tunes instead. It would have made the vote a lot tougher.

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I'm really jealous that Jaimoe saw this to a point where I may never speak to him again. It's like him banging a chick in high school that you wanted to bang.

This movie created serious chills inside. It is an incredible set of music and the story would not live without it. I hope I have the opportunity to revisit this music, but live.

damn you Jaimoe...damn you!

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