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The onscreen magic entwines with reality

August 03, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová walked out of a movie and onto the stage of the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday, causing a clamor among those gathered to see them in the flesh. The two musicians, who play star-crossed collaborators in the indie-film sensation "Once," harmonize with an exquisite subtlety that seems made for a folkie fairy tale. The idyll their music creates, which contrasts so poignantly with the hard lives of the characters they play in the film, is the stuff of concerts fans never forget.

When the pair, who call themselves Swell Season in concert, took their places onstage and lifted their voices in harmony, the audience roared. The dream world of film was becoming real, right there, as Hansard bashed his old guitar and Irglová sang from behind her piano in a voice like stained glass.

Except for this: Before they walked out of that movie, Hansard and Irglová walked into it, together. The dream world of "Once" is based, very loosely, on their own experiences. They'd collaborated for several years before the film was made, starting when Hansard traveled to the Czech Republic and met Irglová as a middle-schooler. Their seemingly spontaneous connection comes from years of occasional musical partnership, cautiously developed because of the difference in their age: He is 37, she is 19.

For Hansard, the road to "Once" has been longer than many ambitious artists could stand. His band, the Frames, has been popular in Ireland for nearly two decades ("Once" director John Carney is a former member) but remains a cult act in America. His bubbly enthusiasm at the El Rey was that of a man who'd folded up his plans only to have them unexpectedly become reality.

He celebrated all night long, spinning yarns before nearly every song, covering Van Morrison and the Pixies with Irglová, even inviting his pal Damien Rice to perform one of his own rather dour compositions. Hansard vented some rage too but was just as eager to sing a song about enjoying bananas.

Hansard's triumph after so many years casts a glow that makes "Once" all the more moving. The new listeners drawn in by the soundtrack were satisfied when Hansard and Irglová revisited its touchstones (many of them sparingly reworked Frames songs); they yelled for Irglová, who modestly stayed behind her piano or perched on half of Hansard's chair. (No one yelled for Thomas Bartlett, the New York-based keyboardist who added intriguing effects to many songs, but maybe next time.)

Frames fans got their own thrill when Hansard delivered several songs alone, working himself into an amiable frenzy. The Frames sound is huge and soulful, sometimes overwhelming; Swell Season strips away that grandeur to reveal the contemplative core of Hansard's songwriting. He starts deep and pushes outward, letting his fury gather like humidity. On "Say It to Me Now," he rode the song's confrontational mood so hard he stomped on a guitar pedal and broke it; he finished the song without amplification, as the crowd respectfully hushed itself.

Irglová's contribution was typical of a great harmonizer. She gently reined in Hansard's mad rush of feeling, following his lead but persuading him to be more subtle.

At their best, the duo recalled Richard and Linda Thompson, another pair (now long separated) with a complicated relationship and very different individual strengths. Irglová's calm, prosaic voice countered Hansard's romanticism; with her involved, his songs change from sweeping statements to conversations.

The exchange between Hansard and Irglová is not embellished by studio tricks or a flashy public image. The contrast between their quiet gestures and the flashy pairings of mainstream pop -- taken to extremes when Céline Dion duetted with a hologram of the late Elvis Presley on "American Idol" -- makes them even more appealing. "Once" has made this pair larger than life; making music, they became regular people again.

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