Seasoned Theatre

Music is the common denominator that draws people to downtown Tucson and its east end anchor

On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 2, Brad Hemphill sat at his desk at Pima High School, reading over papers turned in by his freshman English students. He would wince occasionally at some fractured syntax, but he was in generally good spirits, because that night, the teacher/coach/country-Western band member would be making the two-plus-hour drive into Tucson to see a concert he'd been looking forward to for months.

Around that time, the stars of that upcoming show were walking around downtown Tucson, going blissfully unrecognized by the passers-by. In the downtown area, there is a strict visual hierarchy. The bureaucrats only look at each other. The artists look at the students, who, in turn, look at the cops. Meanwhile, the cops look at the homeless people, several of whom might also be in the aforementioned "artist" category. Through this milieu, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová--the unlikely movie stars-turned-musical sensations who perform as the Swell Season--could glide easily undetected, for the 20-year-old Irglová looks like a student, and the older, intentionally scraggly Hansard definitely looks the part of an artist, most probably of the starving variety.

They had arrived in Tucson from Albuquerque the night before in their tour bus, but would be leaving by other means, sort of the opposite of when John Fogerty sang, "Rode in on the Greyhound, I'll be walking out if I go." They had spent the night in Hotel Congress and had spent the day taking in Tucson in all its autumnal, still-100-degree splendor.

The paths of Hemphill and Hansard would cross that evening, the two men brought together by the magic of music: one performing, the other listening, and neither ever certain who would enjoy and appreciate the experience more. They would meet, as the song goes, at the dark end of the street.

While old-timers speak, misty-eyed, about the days when big-name acts would plow through Tucson on the way to the West Coast (I saw the Rolling Stones and Linda Ronstadt performing together at the Tucson Convention Center), for much of the past quarter-century, the Old Pueblo has been a musical wasteland. The big-name acts would play Phoenix, and if there was enough demand for tickets, they'd play Phoenix twice. But now the local Indian casinos are doing big business shuttling Baby Boomer acts through town (giving us a chance to see Earth, Wind and Fire about every six months), and downtown Tucson is rocking. Through happenstance and circumstance and damn hard work, the Rialto has become a venue of choice for bands on the way up and those that are already there. Forget Rio Nuevo; it's Rialto Viejo that is drawing people (from all over the place) to downtown.

While Hansard and Irglová were playing tourist, and Hemphill was planning his drive into Tucson, on Fourth Avenue, Curtis McCrary was having a late lunch with Doug Biggers. McCrary ( a Weekly contributor) is the theater manager and booking agent for the Rialto, the glorious downtown location where the night's concert would be held. Biggers founded this publication and, through sheer force of will, nursed it along and kept it going for much longer than anyone thought possible. After the paper became an established and sustainable enterprise, Biggers sold the operation to the Wick newspaper chain and decided to put his money where his mouth (and heart) was. He bought up a city block at the far-east side of downtown, a block that included the Rialto.

He had big plans for the area, but the plans required his developing financial partnerships with others. Over the past few years, Biggers has been dicked by more self-important businessmen than all of the secretaries on Mad Men put together.

But he, too, was looking forward to the night's show. He attends a lot of the shows at the Rialto, and this one, he knew, would be special. For one thing, it was a sellout long before show time. Unlike many Rialto shows, which pop up on the grid a month or two in advance, this show had been announced in May, and the balcony section had sold out almost immediately.

The passion and simplicity of the Swell Season's music serves to underscore the uplifting story of the duo's success to this point. They came together for the filming of the indie-film sensation Once, a wonderfully heartbreaking tale of love and opportunities squandered, lost and then sorta found at the end. The film was written and directed by John Carney, who, for a time, was Hansard's bandmate in The Frames. Hansard was not the first choice to play the street musician, but stepped in when the first guy dropped out. (Hansard played long-haired guitarist Outspan in the Dublin-based soul-music classic The Commitments back in the early 1990s.)

In Once, he plays a street musician full of anger over having been screwed over by a former lover, yet still somewhat upbeat about life. He and Irglová meet cute on the street, then form an odd friendship after he uses his day-job skills to fix her vacuum cleaner, which she drags around Dublin like a dead pet. They eventually make music together and do so well enough to create the slightest glimmer of hope off in the distance.

(The bittersweet ending of the movie infuriated me, although it can easily be argued that it makes perfect sense. I don't want love stories to make sense. I want Hugh Grant to call himself a "daft prick" in front of a Julia Roberts news conference, and I want Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to be the last two adults atop the Empire State Building on St. Valentine's Day.)

When it looked as though the movie was going nowhere (it was turned down flat by the Sundance Film Festival), the two put their music out on a The Swell Season CD, which ended up selling a few hundred copies.

Then, through some cosmic fortune, it got a second chance with Sundance, wowed the crowds and became an international hit. The Swell Season songs were re-packaged as the Once soundtrack, which became a big hit. The song "Falling Slowly" won the Oscar for Best Original Song.

While filming the movie, the two stars fell slowly for one another, just as director Carney had predicted. Hansard recalls: "About the third day in, (Carney) began calling us 'Bogart and Bacall.'" During the publicity tour, "Fox Searchlight put us on a bus together, and it just felt right."

Brad Hemphill got a late start out of Pima, having to wait for his wife, Amy, and their friend, Tyler Blake, to gather. The town of Pima is a farm community in Graham County. Growth has caused the nearby towns of Safford and Thatcher to merge into one contiguous blob, and that blob is growing north toward Pima. It's less than 80 miles from Tucson as the crow flies, but the circuitous route of Intersate 10 and U.S. 191 requires two-plus hours on the road. It's a road he has taken too many times to count, sometimes as a girls' basketball coach, but mostly to satisfy his passion for music.

"My first concert ever," he recalls, "was Kiss and Cheap Trick at the Tucson Convention Center in 1977. I was 8 years old and thought it was the coolest thing ever.

"I remember wanting to be in a band pretty early on. My friend Chris (Hunt) and I used to come into Tucson once a month when we were teenagers. We'd hit the Chicago Store and PDQ, back when it was the coolest record store on the planet."

Hunt and Hemphill, who both play guitar, make up half of the country-flavored band Showdown. (Hemphill also plays some keyboards and even a harmonica from time to time.) They're joined by Lendon Whetten on bass and Tad Jacobson on drums. (Jacobson is the girls' basketball coach at Safford High.) The band used to play at a place called Dillon's in Sierra Vista once a month, but now mostly sticks close to home, playing regularly at the Bull Pen in Safford and The Flame in Silver City, N.M. They've also played town dances and fairs and even the occasional wedding reception.

When asked if the band has had any Blues Brothers moments, he laughs and says, "There was that one time we spent the entire ride back from Pie Town, N.M. being chased by Nazis."

(Yes, there is a Pie Town. It's on U.S. 60 southwest of Albuquerque, at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet on the Continental Divide. And as long as Truth or Consequences continues to exist, Pie Town will have to be content with having the second-stupidest name in all of New Mexico.)

While his band has limits as to how far it will go to perform, Hemphill will go just about anywhere to see a show. In the past couple of years, he's driven to the Hollywood Bowl with his son to see The Who, been to Coachella for the big festival, and even stopped in Las Vegas one time to see a mini-festival with Train, Ne-Yo and Colin Hay. He loves Steve Earle and will go just about anywhere to see him. He liked the Barenaked Ladies at last year's Fiesta Bowl Block Party on New Year's Eve and the Avett Brothers at the Rialto.

"The Avett Brothers put on an amazing show," he says. "My wife and son went back to Kentucky to visit her family and got tickets to see them in Louisville. But the show at the Rialto was electric. Of all the places I've been, the Rialto is probably the most comfortable place to see a show. Plus, it is by far the venue that books the acts most in line with my musical tastes."

Curtis McCrary tries to cater to a wide variety of tastes in his bookings. Sometimes he gets lucky and catches somebody on an upswing, and the show sells out quickly. Singer/songwriter Jason Mraz was booked into the Dodge Theater in Phoenix later this year, but then added a show at the Rialto as kind of a last-minute thing. Just a couple of days after the show was announced and the tickets went on sale, it was nearly sold out. Where, for the past 20 years or so, acts would just play Phoenix, some are seeing the wisdom of adding Tucson to the itinerary.

There are downsides to that upswing thing, however. Thug rapper 50 Cent was booked into the Rialto right before his debut CD, Get Rich or Die Tryin', was released and rocketed to the top of the charts. (McCrary wasn't in his current capacity with the Rialto at that time.) Fitty came down with a sudden, severe case of "I-don't-want-(or-need)-to-play-Tucson-itis" and bought his way out of the deal. (A similar phenomenon occurred with Carlos Santana, who used to play the Pima County Fairgrounds every year like clockwork, only to cancel--probably because of sore fingers from counting all his money--after his Supernatural album went mega-mega-platinum.)

McCrary admits that it's both a crapshoot and a balancing act to try to determine which acts to bring to the Rialto and when. "We've had some misfires in the past when we've booked acts that we thought would sell out and then didn't. We have to offer certain financial guarantees--sometimes as high as $40,000 or more to certain acts--and you're going to have to sell a lot of tickets to recoup that."

There is the old baseball hitters' myth that the number of solid line drives that are caught are balanced out by bloops that fall in for hits. Anybody who has played baseball will tell you that is simply not true; there are far more hard-hit balls that are caught than there are seeing-eye singles. So, too, is it with the booking business. "Very seldom are the surprises of the pleasant variety," McCrary sighs. "The surprise turnouts are usually less than expected, not more."

Part of the situation is timing and a saturation of the market. "For most people, there's just so much money to spend on concerts each month," he says. "Plus, concerts should be special. Not too many people would want to go to a different show every night. So we have to space them out and try to appeal to all the different musical tastes in our community."

The venue is well-known for offering an eclectic mix. In November, along with Mraz, the Rialto will host Blues Traveler, the Kottonmouth Kings and singer/songwriter Mason Jennings, among others. On the two nights leading up to Thanksgiving will be a Tuesday show by pre-teen pop idols Metro Station, followed the next night by metal monsters GWAR. It's recommended that you see one show, but not both.

By 6:30 p.m., 90 minutes before show time, there was already a line of people down the block and around the corner. While the Rialto occasionally has full seating for some shows, most of the time, it's seating in the balcony and standing on the ground floor. And the standing is first-come, first-served, a policy that obviously led a lot of people to skip the vice-presidential debate that night in an attempt to get right down close for the festivities.

(Putting chairs on the floor level lowers the capacity at the Rialto to around 900, while the "standing" shows have a capacity of 1,400. Ticket sales for the Swell Season show were cut off at around 1,300 to make the venue more comfortable for what was presumed to be an older, less-mosh-pitty crowd.)

Brad and his entourage arrived around 7:30. There were still a handful of people out front trying to scalp tickets, but most of the people who were going to the show were already inside. Brad and Amy found their seats in the balcony while Tyler wandered around down below. Curtis was in his office, tucked away between the bathrooms off the main entrance. He and a couple of other guys were watching the debate on a computer that appeared to have the refresh rate of a Commodore 64. His office feels like just what it is--a room in an old, well-built building. If, as Donald Fagen sang, the Russians decide to push the button down, the only thing left alive would be cockroaches and whoever was in that office at the time of the blast.

When asked if he had met Hansard and/or Irglová, McCrary shrugged, "I almost never meet the acts. There's always that amazingly awkward moment just after you say, 'Hey, I really like your music.' I mean, these people are on the road, going from one town to the next. In every stop, there are basically the same people--managers, venue operators, fans. Obviously, it would be a big deal for a fan to meet them, but for them to meet fans--it's all a blur. I stay out of their way and, in the process, avoid those clumsy moments. "

Opening for the Swell Season was Iron and Wine, a folk singer from South Carolina. He had some of the audience members enthralled and others heading for a pre-emptive bathroom break.

I saw a high school kid there I knew; he was hanging on every word out of the singer's mouth. I wondered if the kid was either planning a suicide or maybe recovering from a botched attempt.

In between acts, Curtis did doodie duty: "Sometimes, if there's a long line for the women's bathroom and no line for the men's, women will just go use the men's bathroom. We try to discourage that." (New sports arenas and stadiums often have more women's bathrooms than men's, sometimes by law.)

Hansard walked out on stage carrying his old, beat-up guitar. It has a large hole in it and is the same one he used as a street performer in Dublin--and the one he made famous in the movie. He stepped up to the edge of the stage, in front of the microphones, and belted out an unamplified tune. It lacked subtlety, but we got it: He was still the same old street troubadour, only now he was indoors, and he was playing in front of a lot of adoring fans.

After one song, he nonchalantly said, "Here's Markéta Irglová." She joined him onstage and sat at the piano. They moved right into a song from the movie, which the crowd greeted with huge applause.

Out in the lobby, things had quieted down. There was still the occasional clinking of glass as a server threw a beer bottle into the huge trashcan full of empties. The security people were at their posts, but there wasn't much to do.

McCrary explained that even though this audience skews older, and the music is mellower, he still needed a good number of security people: "Security is one of the biggest concert-night expenses. Sometimes, it can make the difference between losing money, breaking even or making a little profit. There's a tricky formula that I have to follow to determine how many will be needed. (Similar-sized concert venues) in places like Los Angeles and Boston can pretty much count on selling out every show, so it's easier for them to figure out how many security people they need. For us, we have to guess how many tickets are going to be sold, what kind of crowd it will be and how the vibe of the show is likely to affect the crowd."

The security people perform a variety of functions, one of which is to keep people from exiting the venue with an open container of anything, as I found out when I tried to go outside with my $2 cup of Diet Coke. They have to watch for people who show up drunk or get that way upon arrival. They have to keep the entrances to the auditorium open. For some reason, a lot of people like to hang in the doorway, impeding access to the lobby. They also have to break up the occasional fight and do so in a quick and effective manner. (No one would be bounced this night, but I did see one shirtless gentleman escorted from the premises earlier in the summer at the Coheed and Cambria show. As the guy was being shown the outer door, he said, "That's all right. I'd probably kick me out, too.")

The Swell Season performed with passion and simplicity. In between songs, Hansard spoke comfortably to the crowd in his thick Irish brogue. Inspired, I come up with a limerick in his honor.

There once was a singer named Hansard,
And all of life's questions he answered.
His guitar had a hole,
But he sang from his soul.
And this limerick will have to go unfinished because the only rhyming word I could think of was "cancered."

They played a really long set, and the show didn't get over until almost 11. The place emptied out quickly. Brad's wife, Amy, wanted to stick around and maybe get an autograph from Hansard, but there was no guarantee that she would even get a shot, and they had the long drive home and school in the morning. Even if they made good time, they wouldn't get back to Pima until after 1 in the morning.

About a half-hour after they left, Hansard and Irglová emerged from the stage door on the east side of the building and were greeted by a group of about 30 people whose longshot prayers were answered. Irglová did a quick interview with people from a cable-access station while Hansard--clearly the star--shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures.

Their manager hovered nearby and tried to hurry things along. One time, he said, "The train waits for no man." It sounded wonderfully profound, even if it was delivered in the exact same lilting tone as a Lucky Charms commercial.

When Brad was later informed that the duo mingled with the fans, he sent the following e-mail:

"I told Amy about the encounter, and she was quite disappointed. Glen may currently occupy the No. 1 spot on Amy's 'list.' You know the one. Everybody has one. It's the list of people that your significant other knows that you would be hard-pressed to spurn if the opportunity presented itself. It's a moral question, really. If, for example, I got the 'offer' from Scarlett Johansson, it would actually be a bigger knock on my judgment to say no than to say yes. It's complicated. But not really. And I kid. But just barely."

The train the manager had mentioned was the midnight special out of Tucson, heading for L.A. Instead of getting back on the tour bus, the duo would ride in a sleeper car to Los Angeles, where they had a 10 a.m. appointment to appear on an upcoming episode of The Simpsons. Reportedly, Hansard will appear in a pub that Homer is determined to buy from owner Kenneth Branagh.

The manager finally got his way, and the group hustled across the street to the train station. After The Simpsons taping in the morning, they'd head down to San Diego for a show, then back up to the Greek Theatre in L.A. to finish their American tour. After that, it was back to Europe, where they'd do a five-week tour beginning in Northern Ireland and ending up with two presumably triumphant shows in Dublin in early December.

When Hansard accepted the Oscar for Best Original Song, he said that he felt like "a plumber at a flower show." Clever line, but inside, he's got to be feeling that this is, indeed, a swell season.

On that one night, for the fans who drove in from the hinterlands; for the Rialto, which hosted a sellout show; and for the unlikely musical stars who, but for the grace of God, could just as easily be standing on a Dublin street corner belting out the exact same tunes, it was a magical night.

In the words of Ice Cube (who will be appearing at the Rialto in December), I guess it was a good day.

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