Josh Ritter & The Swell Season - Paradiso, Amsterdam 23/02/2010

Focused. Determined. Powerful.

Two songs into the gig and Josh Ritter’s already beaming like a spoilt child on his birthday. He’s on stage with an acoustic guitar, strumming the opening chords of Kathleen, a spotlight shining in his face. The song is greeted with affectionate applause and a couple of “woo” noises from men holding beers who daren’t clap their hands together in case they spill something. Josh begins to sing and then starts to mime the words, hoping the crowd will take over for him. A couple of shy voices sing “They try to shine in through your curtain” but they come over all self conscious and Josh has to step back in to take over before the line is finished. Perhaps it’s too early for audience anticipation? Never mind.

The following song is a new one. Josh asks for the lights to be turned down. All the way down. Yes, that means all of them Mr Light Man. All of them! The room’s air becomes thick, dense and gloomy, the only illumination being the faint light shining through the stained glass above the stage. The room is silent, save for the sound of plastic glasses being moved around behind the bar. The crowd - patient, attentive, enthralled - remain that way as Josh strums his way through a long, beautiful tune that nobody is familiar with. Remember, we’re still only three songs into the set.

The lights come back up and Josh’s grin can now officially be termed a Cheshire Cat look. “This is going great,” says the young troubadour and off we go through Harrisburg and a breathless To The Dogs Or Whoever (How can he sing that song without passing out?). Then Josh, pushing his luck somewhat, moves to the side of the stage. The crowd sense what’s coming. All noise ceases. Nobody talks. People are hardly even breathing. Even the bar staff stop what they’re doing for a while as there, in the darkness, away from the light and the microphone, Josh Ritter sings A Girl In The War.

His voice carries through the room, all the way up to the second balcony. The entire, sold out crowd hanging on every word. One man and an acoustic guitar with more than a thousand people in the palm of his hand. Artist and audience completely together. A perfect gig moment. An incredible, beautiful and memorable moment. The song finishes. Josh thanks the crowd and walks off stage a hero. The applause is deafening. The ‘woo’ noises are louder and longer. He came. He played. He conquered.

This was an astonishing performance. Focused. Determined. Powerful. And do you want to know what was most impressive? Josh was only the support act. This wasn’t even his audience! But who the hell would want to follow that? Who could follow that?

Well, the Swell Season had to try.

Fair play to Glen Hansard, he came out swinging. He walked straight out on stage, past the microphone and repeated Josh’s trick with Say It To Me Now. It was a clever opening to their set, instantly proving that anything Josh could do, they’d be prepared to do too.

The main set was, in a nutshell, brilliant but to be honest I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any problems with it. The problems I had with the show were similar to the ones I have with the band, and in particular their second album Strict Joy, as a whole but I’ll accept that they’re minor ones. The Swell Season are a great band but I don’t think they’re balanced properly and tonight’s performance showcased that perfectly. There’s no doubting Hansard’s talent and ability to belt out a tune and he’s one hell of a performer. There’s also no doubting the ability of Markéta Irglová either but she’s not in the same league as Hansard and he overpowers her, particularly live.

I think age and experience has a lot to do with it, let’s not forget Hansard is almost 40 and has a wealth of experience with his underrated band The Frames behind him (most of whom are on stage with him tonight) and Irglová is in her early twenties. Hansard, like Josh Ritter, is a powerful and enigmatic performer. Irglova is simply too shy to share the spotlight with him. He gives her the space and time to perform, that must be said, but I couldn’t help but think that some of the momentum of the night was lost every time she stepped up to the mic. Of course, I don’t mean to say that when she stepped forward to sing Fantasy Man or any other song it ruined the evening because it didn’t. Far from it! It just changed the mood of the show, that’s all. When Hansard and the band kick up a fuss, like they did on the powerful, bristling Feeling The Pull, they make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and the version of The Rain was particularly powerful. There’s a primal, powerful energy to them that lifts you and the audience around you but that power dissolves when you listen to something like Fantasy Man because it comes at you from another place. It’s beautiful, yes, and it sounded fantastic tonight but the two worlds don’t necessarily sit well with one another. 

Instead of the evening building up and up, it kind of went up and down somewhat, not in terms of quality but just in terms of tempo and mood. There’s no doubting the talent on show and I would heartily recommend you check these guys out if you get the chance but I can’t help but feel that it’s Hansard I want to see perform again and not the two of them.

Still, it was a fantastic night and if the only gripe I have to say is that I enjoyed Glen’s songs more than Markéta’s, then that’s not really a gripe at all is it? Maybe I’m just getting a little spoilt?