A Swell Evening at the Ottawa Bluesfest

Glen Hansard - The Swell Season

Photos and Review By:André Bouchard


Coming on the heels of two of my favorite sets at the 2010 Ottawa Bluesfest that I have ever seen, multiple choices came to a crest last night as Rush, The Swell Season and The Levon Helm Band were all scheduled to perform at the same time on Sunday night. I should have known that the world cup final would provide a tell tale sign for the evening’s events. Disappointment abounded. I looked forward to see if finally seeing Rush live might give me a greater appreciation of their music but I was not in the mood to deal with  the crush of the crowd so I stayed towards the back just past the wacky wavy inflatable flailing arm man. Unfortunately, this performance did nothing more than confirm what I seemed to already know and if you are looking for a review of their show I recommend you immediately turn away. I am clearly not a fan but some of the poorest sound I have ever heard coming from the main stage for the hour I was there certainly didn’t help.

Having read a few excellent reports on this site, I was extremely excited to finally catch The Swell Season. Consisting of the harmonized duo of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who are also featured in the heavily recommended movie Once, I was able to find a choice spot about 15 minutes before they were scheduled to perform at 9 on the Hard Rock stage. Once the clock rolled over the starting time, Glen came out to a huge applause and did a quick check on his microphone. He then sat down with 2 bandmates and looked to either be discussing chess strategies or something that they found equally troubling. It appeared as though we would find out soon enough. They left the stage and returned as the entire band about five minutes later, immediately launching the crowd into a collective frenzy. There were many more fans in attendance by this point and had gathered around me. Low Rising continued the feel good opening and gave me what I can only imagine as a Van Morrison show in the early 70’s vibe. Singing with poise and confidence while beginning to grab the crowd in the palm of his hand, Glen started to show a face of frustration as the band tried to bring the song to a mellower spotlight. Both the music from Rush and from The Levon Helm Band were washing over the Hard Rock stage. The band picked up the music again and we witnessed a simple yet poignant slide solo from the lead guitar who was playing a Les Paul to perfection.

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

As soon as the song ended, you could really hear the other stages. In These Arms started up almost as soon as Glen strapped on his beater guitar. He taught the crowd a melody he wanted them to sing but again, looked frustrated thanks to the sound bleed. It was rather unfortunate though because the standing crowd seemed to know the song and provided a beautiful singing backdrop you rarely get to see, let alone participate in. Glen urged the crowd to sing louder but it wasn’t helping. At this point, I was wondering how I could leave even though I knew I was going to have to at some point because this was not the way I wanted to experience the Swell Season. Glen is such a wonderful singer/songwriter and deserves far more credit and I only hope people will be able to acknowledge him at some point but it’s not going to happen with scheduling like this. I couldn’t help but wonder if the choice of Feel The Pull came out earlier than normally would, simply because it’s a louder song. Whatever the case, it worked. What didn’t work were the next 2 songs. Glen and Marketa switched places and both songs were of the soft ballad type but enough was enough for me. Levon Helm’s stage was far too much of a distraction. I decided to cut my losses and head over there.

Levon Helm Band

The lawn chair people seemed to have taken over this stage but I was able to make my way up a fair bit as they were covering Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, a good portion of the standers were swaying back and forth. Levon had moved towards the middle of his stage from his drum kit and picked up a mandolin. I have always held a soft spot for the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band’s take on the traditional Deep Elem Blues so it was with no small ability for me to forget the previous frustrations and envelop myself in a wonderful New Orleans-esque groove. Larry Campbell was clearly the band leader from what I was witnessing but I was determined to hear how things were going back at the Swell Season since this stage didn’t appear to be overly loud so I made my way back, albeit slowly because It Makes No Difference had a hold on me. As I listened to the end of the song, I was able to get into an earshot of the Hard Rock stage and was surprised to hear Falling Slowly. Both songs are deeply cherished in my world so knowing they were being played at the same time seemed to make everything fit in a puzzle you wouldn’t imagine being pieced together upon opening the box and emptying it on the floor.

What came next was a great surprise and I am sure to everyone else at The Swell Season. Glen said "Thanks a lot, you made what was a difficult night rather pleasant.” and they were done, only to appear for a single encore. By my watch, their time on stage had to have been less than an hour if an hour at all. I wasn’t familiar with the song but it contained a climatic crowd sing-along (ala “la la la” ing) that was as pretty as anything I have heard at Bluesfest. Some horns came piling in from the Levon stage and Glen cracked a crooked smile and spoke into the mic “For once it actually fit.” when describing the sound bleed. The song ended in a sonic boom style with loops and noise as each member left their respective instruments onstage and waved to the crowd. I was beyond shocked but one thing was certain. I will see this band again but I can only hope it is in a theatre designed for their unique interpretations.

Glen Hansard and John Hiatt join Levon Helm Band

I made it back to Levon, after another lost moment in times trying to procure a beer, for another all-too-often version The Weight. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the song. Being a Deadhead, it is one of those songs that have followed me around for way too many years and always in a similar slot in the set list but I cherish that I was finally able to see it being played by it’s own living legend. The encore ended up being a cleansing experience. I Shall Be Released had a few extra musicians join, including another legend in John Hiatt and “who woulda thunk it” but none other than Glen Hansard of The Swell Season. It was as spirited as that song can be and offered me a moment of much needed solace. Glen looked to be far happier than I would have been in his shoes and must have been thinking “if you cant beat’em, join’em”. Kudos to him and his attitude. I will try and carry that lesson forward but knowing myself the way I do, it wont be long before I forget it. Speaking of which, another important note to self: never try and start a review while leaving Bluesfest and walking beside the river on the bike path because next time you might actually fall in.