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Not Just Once or the Swell Season in Los Angeles

Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard are performing together again after years. At the end of their August US tour, they received a standing ovation at the sold-out Orpheum Theater on Broadway in Los Angeles.

Glen Hansard is one of the best rock singers of our generation. At concerts, he plays and sings his often painfully strong original compositions as if for life. At the beginning of the century, he often appeared in Czechia, where he also released an album with his group The Frames. The story of how he became the musical mentor, concert and later for some time life partner of Markéta Irglová, the daughter of a Czech concert promoter, went around the world.

Markéta Irglová gradually emancipated herself from a modest guest role as a pianist and backing singer at Hansard's concerts into a unique pop-folk singer-songwriter with the central themes of love, hope and consolation.

Hansard and Irglová dazzled at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 thanks to the believability of the author's performance of the songs and the authentically non-acting portrayal of characters similar to them in the Irish musical film Once, and the modest film became an unexpected hit of the year.

They won an Oscar for the film song Falling Slowly, which they wrote together. It directed them to musical immortality, to a highly successful musical adaptation of the film on New York Broadway, to a Grammy and to a multi-year tour around the world in a musical formation named after Škvorecký's book The Swell Season.

Their life and creative paths then diverged. Markéta married and settled in Iceland, gave birth to three children and released three solo albums. Glen continued his solo career as a rock singer, released four albums, got married and settled in Helsinki last year. In 2022, they resumed touring together for a series of six enthusiastically received concerts in the US, which encouraged them to a confidently conceived tour of the major concert halls this year. In August, they crossed the United States from east to west with 14 concert stops in auditoriums with the size and voice of Prague's Lucerna, such as Radio City Music Hall in New York or the Orpheum in Los Angeles.

The concert in Los Angeles on Sunday, August 27, like half the others during the tour, was sold out two months in advance. It is not surprising, this big city has the same population as the Czech Republic and the Oscar winners experience a home atmosphere here, which was also reflected by Hansard's swift interaction with the audience during the concert on the topic of the current screenwriters' strike.

 When Irglová appeared on stage with Hansard and the accompanying musicians after the first hour filled with advancers, the audience jumped out of their theater seats and warmly welcomed the return of old friends and Hansard's first great song Lies from the movie Once. Hansard on guitar and Irglová on piano were accompanied by regulars Marja Gaynor on violin, Bertrand Galen on cello, Joe Doyle on bass, Piero Perelli and Chad Smith took turns on drums.

Right from the second song The Answer is Yes, it was clear that the musical partnership between Hansard and Irglová in this new Swell Season is much more balanced than we remember from before. I first saw Markéta Irglová, then seventeen years old, perform as a guest in the two closing songs of Hansard's concert at the Brno observatory in 2005. The double voice in the song Star Star harmonized beautifully, but it was just a nice decoration on the finished cake.

Three years later, at the Oscars, it was already clear that she was far from just being "the girl the boss took with him to the party". That's when she did not get to the microphone, Oscar in hand, before Hansard's thanks were interrupted by music. However, the director of the program was embarrassed and, unprecedentedly, called her on stage again after a few minutes, which teenage girl Irglová impromptu used for the most impressive speech of the evening.

The Answer Is Yes was composed by Irglová as a signal song for the entire tour and for the reunion of The Swell Season. Glen sings the second voice to Markéta, and throughout the concert they take turns as authors and singers and sing each other's second or accompanying voices. The music video for the song, shot in the home studio of Markéta's husband in Iceland, where Glen came with his newlywed and little son for a few days of work, but they prolonged their stay to two weeks, is also telling.

If the initial success of Hansard and Irglová was also supported by their real-life romantic relationship, then their current mutual chemistry is equally believable. They are ex-partners who have healed their wounds from a breakup and manage and want to get along amicably, cooperate and even support each other. In addition to the originality of the creative expression and the depth of the lyrical message, it is crucial for singer-songwrites to make their audience believe that what and how they sing is not just an industrial calculation. I trust these two.

Hansard is a great rocker, whose performance of his own and borrowed works ignites him until he catches fire on stage with a bright flame. In the Orpheum Theatre, he demonstrated it best in his cult song When Your Mind's Made Up or, at the end, with boyish joy in a cover version of early metal ACDC song.

Strong moments were also his emotional performance of his song The Moon, of the Frames classic called Fitzcarraldo, or a stylish reminder of his busker beginnings when he performed the song Say It to Me Now solo without microphones.

Irglová surprised most of the audience with a selection from her extensive songwriting, including a touching song I Leave Everything To You she had written during this American tour. She also impressed with how she moved against the original The Swell Season in terms of authorship and singing expression.

One of her oldest songs, If You Want Me, gained a new meaning with the author's gradually acquired insight and experience. Irglová herself briefly commented that the song evolved with her as she transformed from a girl to a woman. Her highlight of the evening for me was My Roots Go Deep, a song about building confidence and self-awareness: "I'm a tall and strong tree, I can weather any storm".

Together, Hansard and Irglová sung a thunderously applauded cover of Van Morrison's most famous song Into the Mystic. Guest Olivia Vedder reminded that she is her Father's Daughter (Eddie Vedder´s) by the song of the same name. The expected highlight for everyone was the brilliantly performed Oscar-winning Falling Slowly. For the last five songs, the audience got up from the theater seats and enthusiastically enjoyed the finale of a successful evening.

This year's American tour of Irglová and Hansard was exceptional in the context of Czech popular music. Jan Hammer achieved a similar, albeit sole, success in the USA, when his electro-rock soundtrack for the TV series Miami Vice Theme reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1985.

In the first era of The Swell Season, only one singer-songwriter came close to Irglová's fame in the USA: Czech-Australian Lenka (real name Lenka Křipáč) with her hits The Show and Everything at Once, which was known to every user of the new Windows 8. Current indie pop star Caroline Polachek has Slovak roots.

Markéta Irglová is Ester Ledecká of Czech pop music. She is the first Czech artist to sell out and continue to sell out prestigious concert halls during a several-week tour across the US and Europe without following the usual path to domestic success.

Karel Pažourek