When the Swell Season — essentially Frames frontman Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Markéta Irglová— played U Street’s beautiful Lincoln Theatre last December, they nearly upstaged headliner Damien Rice. But returning to the Lincoln Sunday night, the Swell Season were deservedly the main attraction, riding a wave from the sleeper hit movie Once, wherein Hansard and Irglová basically play less famous versions of themselves, falling in love (kind of) as they wander Dublin composing songs together.
The movie and the duo’s songs share a bittersweet hue, but Sunday’s concert was purely celebratory. Performing in various configurations — Hansard solo, Hansard/ Irglová duo, and as a five-piece with cellist Bertrand Galen, violinist Marja Tuhkanan, and Frames fiddler Colm MacConlomaire — the ensemble conjured up forceful-yet-intimate readings of songs from the Swell Season’s sole album and the Once soundtrack, Frames favorites, and well-chosen covers of songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and, um, Michelle Shocked. (Don’t snicker. The rave-up of Shocked’s “Fogtown” that closed the main set was one of the evening’s highlights.)
But the lovesick ballads featured prominently in Once — “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and the title track —drew the biggest cheers from a rapt audience that mostly stayed quiet enough during the performances let these haunting, fragile compositions resonate.
Onstage as onscreen, Hansard and Irglová’s chemistry is palpable. He’s a furry-faced motormouth who can’t introduce a song without revising himself three times; she’s a no-nonsense siren whose voice ends all debate. But whenever Hansard indulged his cutesy tendencies — joining, for example, the already treacly Frames number “Star Star” with “Pure Imagination” from that deathless “Willy Wonka” movie — you knew the 19-year-old Irglová would have the next song, using her “If You Want Me” to pull the 37-year-old Hansard back from the twee abyss.
Truly, theirs is a match made in Heaven. Okay, Ireland. On this night, it was close enough.
A truncated version of this review appears in today’s Paper of Record.