Photo via Brookyn Vegan

I’ve always wanted to see what the inside of Radio City Music Hall looks like, but I’ve never wanted to see the Rockettes. Fortunately, on Tuesday night the Swell Season and Josh Ritter played a sold out show in that famed hall for which my wife and I were fortunate enough to have tickets.

Needless to say, I was very excited. And, really, the wanting-to-see-Radio-City-thing paled in comparison to the caliber of the show we were treated to. You may know The Swell Season as Glen Hansard (also of The Frames) and Marketa Irglova.

Not ringing a bell? Uhoh.

Ok, fine, you may also know them as that amazing duo that starred in the movie “Once” and won an Academy Award for best song for “Falling Slowly” from that film.

Billed as a special guest, Josh Ritter was the opening act, though, for my wife and I, he’s always the main event. We’ve seen Ritter several times in concert including this past summer at a free concert in Central Park. He’s consistently great and last night was no exception, especially impressive in light of his painfully short set.

And that brings me to my point…almost. You will find (I hope) glowing reviews of last night’s show at various blogs around the web. And rightly so, The Swell Season was joined on stage by Hansard’s bandmates from The Frames, plus a horn section and not only were the performances tight, it was a veritable love fest on stage as appreciation, awe and, appropriately, strict joy flowed freely.

Ok, the point. The thing that makes The Swell Season so wonderful is the same thing that made “Once” such an excellent film and it’s the same thing I love about Josh Ritter and other artists of that ilk…it is sincerity. Whether it was Hansard talking nervously about how excited he was to be in Radio City, what each of the songs meant to him or how he admired an elderly woman’s outerwear, or Irglova’s apparent shyness, or Ritter’s tendency to giggle between songs, it is obvious that these artists value being themselves, sharing great music and good company over any desire to “be” anything.

If you’re me, this makes for a great show, a great, long 3.5 hour show. If you’re a (stereo)typical Manhattan concert-goer, however this makes for 207 minutes too many. The 3 minutes being reserved for them to sing that one song from that artsy movie that your girlfriend dragged you to see.

I’m not just being bitter, I mean, I am, but not just. My night was infiltrated with voices from all around me whispering things like, “Who is this guy?” (Josh Ritter), “When are they going to play that song?,” (Falling Slowly) and, after they played it, “Play it again!” And, finally, “I know that they have a lot of songs, but that was ridiculously long.”

So what’s the deal New York? Like so many other things here that I’ve experienced, from walking down the street to going to church, the concert last night was inundated with celebrity worship. Again, I know this isn’t the case for everyone, if pressed I’m sure it’s not even a majority. In fact, as my friend Brian pointed out, we were surrounded by just as many band geeks at Josh Ritter’s Central Park show as we may have been in some whole in the wall club in my hometown of Boston.

In his enlightening essay, “First City,” Jonathan Franzen describes a flight he was on from the midwest to New York City. He writes of sitting next to a mother who was bringing her child to the great metropolis for the first time and he asked them, naturally, if they planned to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, that kind of thing. Much to his surprise, the mother replied that, no, they weren’t really interested in doing that. Rather they were going to go straight away to Rockefeller Center and stand outside the window where Good Morning America is filmed and try to get on TV!

This, Franzen, concludes more eloquently than I will here, is what New York City has become. A place where you can become what you see on TV. You can enter into that world of make believe. Think of “TRL,” MTV’s hit show in the 90s. Back then Time Square became a virtual television studio every afternoon where young people had their chance to be on MTV. So it was, I felt, with what otherwise was an amazing concert. This culture of celebrity worship which is felt nowhere more strongly (though with a “keep-it-cool,” frantic subtlety) as in New York, brought a lot of people out to see the couple from the movie, to somehow insert oneself into that story.

For what it’s worth my experience didn’t seem to be universal judging by the review at Brooklyn Vegan. References to “audience eating out of the palms of their hands” and “the crowd left happy but wanting more” tells me that they got a different sense of the crowd from where they sat, which judging by the photos, was right up front.

Anyway, all of that didn’t ruin our experience, but it did make us long for the kind of sincerity (I understand this is a bit like politicians longing for the “real America”) that was palpable on stage, to expand out of the the Music Hall, up and down 6th Avenue, all throughout Manhattan and the environs and, while we’re at it, throughout the world!

Photo via Brooklyn Vegan

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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