Josh Ritter and The Swell Season - Strict Joy Tour | The Auditorium, Rome | 6 February, 2010

When I first read that the opening act for yesterday evening's The Swell Season concert at Sala Sinopli at the Auditorium Parco della Musica was going to be Josh Ritter, my expectations for the event were instantly raised. With an opening act of such a high calibre this had all the potential for being an incredible evening. Unfortunately, his presence wasn't heavily advertised, and he was forced to play with house lights up and the constant comings and goings of people taking their seats – and that unbreakable rule which says that an audience should always chat throughout the support act holds true in Rome too. It's to Josh Ritter's enormous credit, therefore, that with just voice and guitar (and a huge smile that was visible even from the gallery) he won over enough of the audience to elicit cheers and applause after each of his gorgeous and quirky folk songs – Kathleen, Snow is Gone, Girl In The War, Harrisburg are just some that I remember - and managed to silence most of the others impatiently waiting for the main event. I could have listened to him all night!

As one of the few people on the planet who hasn't yet seen Once, the movie that catapulted The Frames' front-man Glen Hansard and Czech singer and pianist Markéta Irglová into worldwide stardom as the group The Swell Season, I'll admit that I bought the tickets for the concert out of pure curiosity. As Glen and Markéta took to the stage, however, and were joined by The Frames to play Low Rising from the band's new album Strict Joy, I quickly realised I'd made the right call! Shifting between older and newer songs, mixed in with lots of chat from the charismatic Hansard, this was an evening of consummate musicianship combined with heartfelt intensity and passion. One of the many highlights of the evening – with a clear nod to his busking days – saw Hansard step away from the mic and play a totally unplugged Say It To Me Now, breaking the song midway to tell the story, at once funny and terribly moving, of his meeting an elderly woman who had lost a son in the 9/11 attacks. It's hard to imagine anybody even daring to cover Van Morrison's Astral Weeks – but Glen Hansard took that chance last night...and it was astoundingly good! Traditional musical influences were also given a moment in the spotlight when The Frames' violin player Colm Mac Con Iomaire played the haunting traditional Irish violin solo The Court Of New Town.

It was surely no surprise to anybody when the couple came back out on stage during the encore and sang two of the songs that so perfectly showcase just how well their voices fit together - Falling Slowly from the film Once - it won an Academy Award for Best Song - and Lies. As a brand new Josh Ritter fan I was thrilled to see him invited back out on stage during the encore for a stunning version of Come and Find Me, which this time saw him playing with both The Swell Season and the Frames. If the audience response to Hansard's attempts to get us to sing along to Back Broke and High Hopes earlier in the evening had been a little shy – uncharacteristic for a Roman crowd – that was all swept away during the closing number. Powerless to resist, we all stood up when ordered, shook ourselves and sang (and clapped and danced) to High Horses. A fantastic live band – highly recommended!

Watch Falling Slowly and Lies below or click here to watch on YouTube.

Watch Josh Ritter's Kathleen below or click here to watch on YouTube.