It's hard not to love the Swell Season. Since winning the hearts of audiences -- and an Oscar -- thanks to the 2006 film Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova have maintained that adoration through rigorous touring, refreshing humility and the recent release of their second album, Strict Joy.
Before the Swell Season took the stage at House of Blues on Tuesday, singer/guitarist Ryan Bingham opened up with some astonishingly derivative blues and folk. His raspy voice dripped with affectation as he rambled on about times changing and winds blowing like some copy of a copy of a copy of Bob Dylan.
The set's most cringe-worthy moment came during the song "Dollar a Day." Bingham's working-class pretense about "working in the goddamn sun...for a dollar a day" might have felt less phony if he hadn't sung it while wearing a pair of hundred-dollar jeans. His dexterous slide-guitar work was well-executed -- if not terribly groundbreaking -- but it could do little to distract from his cynical, hackneyed impersonation of a Dust Bowl busker.
Luckily, the Swell Season fared much better. From the opening song -- a slowed-down version of "This Low" -- onward, all the key Swell Season components were present: tender harmonies, somber lyrics about distressed relationships and the delicate chords of Irglova's piano outlining the strums from Hansard's battered acoustic guitar.
Despite the morose subject matter, Hansard and Irglova were in good humor, smiling at one another and mugging at the crowd. Hansard took the lead on songs like "Low Rising" and "In These Arms," but Irglova's presence in the band has increased in recent years. The Czech pianist switched to guitar as she sang the lead on "If You Want Me" and the gorgeous "Fancy Man," preceding the latter with an explanation of the song's themes of resisting, then eventually relenting to, life changes. Hansard stole back the show with solo versions of the anguished "Leave" and "Say It to Me," during which he unplugged his guitar and moved away from the mike, enthralling the crowd with his non-amplified, heartfelt performance.
The set also had plenty of jubilant moments, such as Hansard and Irglova's duet of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" and the high-energy "Feeling the Pull," which featured a blazing harmonica lead by Hansard that rivaled Dylan's in "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35." Unlike Bingham's opening-act mimicry, this was a Dylan tribute that hit all the right notes.