Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Swell evening

I don't usually write about music on my movie blog, but there's always a way to work it into the theme if you're clever.

Actually, last night didn't require too much cleverness. Last night I saw a musical celebration of my love for the movie Once, and, to a (far) lesser extent, my love for the movie Elf.

My wife is into her eighth month of pregnancy, but she's also known for her ambitiousness -- which in some cases comes back to bite her. Fortunately, last night wasn't one of those cases, though it certainly was ambitious: A Sunday night trip to the Hollywood Bowl to see The Swell Season, She & Him and The Bird and the Bee. It was a special surprise for me, a last hurrah before this kind of thing will start requiring a babysitter. We amassed a picnic of pita chips, hummus, feta and sundried tomato spread, port salut cheese and crackers, olives, tangelos and open-face sandwiches of ham and avocado. At the Hollywood Bowl, you can picnic anywhere -- from grassy parks around the perimeter, to parks inside, to picnic tables inside, even at your seats. Usually there's alcohol involved, and they're fine with BYO on that front, too.

With the picnic experience beforehand, sometimes it doesn't really matter who you see -- it's just a fun embrace of the Los Angeles summer. And in many of my previous visits to the Bowl, I've seen a band I was only marginally interested in seeing. If those were cherished experiences even without the band being a perfect fit, just imagine what it's like when you see one that is.

If you aren't familiar with The Swell Season -- and the above picture hasn't jogged your memory -- the band basically consists of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of John Carney's film Once. They had at least six other accompanists last night, but wikipedia tells me they're the only formal members of the band.

Like many of you, I loved Once, and bought the soundtrack only days after first seeing it in the summer of 2007. (In fact, on Wednesday, it will have been exactly three years since I saw the film.) I was entranced by Hansard's soaring, passionate voice, and the comparative softness and delicacy of Irglova's, which complemented his so well. I fell in love with their (almost) love story on screen, and was tickled to learn that they were real-life lovers -- even with the somewhat suspect 18-year age difference, of which I wasn't initially aware. The bittersweet story within the film, and the less ambiguous story outside the film, were both living, blossoming entities in my mind, as I continued to listen to that soundtrack until I'd run it ragged. When they won the Oscar the following March, it was another defining moment in my love of the film.

Since then, my wife and I have both been looking for opportunities to see them perform live, since stories of Hansard's on-stage presence were legendary. They seemed to play locally quite regularly, several times a year, but the ticket prices were always in the vicinity of a hundred bucks, so we never pulled the trigger. I actually had one instance where I was dialing into KCRW, the local NPR affiliate that also has a schedule of terrific music shows, to win tickets, but needless to say, I never got through.

The Hollywood Bowl proved to be the opportunity we were waiting for. Since we sat in the nosebleeds, I'm sure they weren't that expensive, plus we got the picnic in as well.

And Glen and Marketa didn't disappoint. Not only did they play a half-dozen songs from the Once soundtrack -- "Lies," "If You Want Me," "Leave," "When Your Mind's Made Up," "Falling Slowly," and as an encore, a personal favorite, "Say It To Me Now" -- but they killed in their other selections, only one or two of which I was familiar with. That's the brilliance of The Swell Season -- unlike many other bands, you don't have to already know their songs in order to be drawn into them. Hansard's charismatic words to the audience, followed by a performance style that ranges between gentle and intense, makes every song interesting. Rarely have I seen someone wail on an acoustic guitar the way Hansard does, yet there's never any doubt that the songs are deeply melodic and beautifully passionate. The Swell Season also did at least two covers, one of a Bruce Springsteen song I was not familiar with, and one of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," which is my favorite of his songs. It was an unforgettable version of that song as well -- if you've got Hansard's voice in your head right now, just imagine him during the "I want to rock your gypsy soul" high part of that song.

Did I mention something about the movie Elf?

That's because the band we saw before The Swell Season, She & Him, is a collaboration between actress Zooey Deschanel and musician M. Ward. I actually considered writing about She & Him a couple months ago, as some variation on the wariness I usually feel when actors and actresses try to moonlight as musicians. However, I don't really have any snarkiness reserved for Deschanel on this front. She has a legit voice, and having sat through their set last night, I no longer think she's "just trying to be cool." In fact, I think her band has almost a country western sound to it, her voice sounding like it would have been comfortable on a jukebox jam-packed with Patsy Cline songs. Without having really heard them, I would have assumed they were achingly hip, but I found them to be almost disarmingly cute -- kind of like Deschanel always comes across on screen. This doesn't mean they were exactly my cup of tea, and I did feel the couple beers I'd had starting to make me tired when my mind couldn't attach to a number of songs in a row that didn't seem very distinctive. But I definitely respect what they do, and Deschanel really belted it out on a closing cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You."

Oh yeah, Elf. That was the first time I was really aware that Deschanel could sing, as she has that scene where she's singing in the shower ("Baby It's Cold Outside"), and then the closing scene, where she sings "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" in order to elevate the Christmas spirit of the Central Park crowd, enough to power Santa's sleigh. In fact, I cited Elf as the reason I knew what Deschanel's voice sounded like, as my wife and I were making our way up the hill and wondering which act was currently performing. Not that I'd heard a couple of their songs on the radio, but that I remembered her voice from Elf.

So yeah, we missed The Bird and The Bee during our picnicking. But that's okay. I don't have a cinematic reference point for them anyway.

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