(photo: Amy Burnside)
Why is Glen Hansard so unbelievably good. Those who saw both U2 and Hansard in recent weeks have been suggesting that he was the winner and though you can’t actually compare such different concerts, it is with a discussion. Hansard had a wee lit up lighthouse and a bbg bass drum saying SAVE A SOUL MISSION whereas U2 had banks of screens and at least 3 stages. Still, it says something that people are holding Hansard up against his fellow Dubs. Mind you I have said for some years that Hansard’s band The Frames were the best live band in Ireland; draw your own conclusions as to what that means.
So why is Hansard so good I kept asking from my spot on the balcony. It eventually dawn don me. Hansard is actually still the Grafton Street busker that he was in his early teens. He has simply been asked out of the rain and found himself on Belfast’s most famous stage surrounded by the tastiest of bands and then if that wasn’t enough a string and brass section as well.
It’s all there from the word go. He steps out to the front of the stage forgetting that, now out of the rain, he has a PA system. He just sings Grace Beneath The Pines into the Ulster Hall air. Immediately he has the crowd’s attention and he involves them in the singing at the earliest convenience. They become part of the happening. That is the Grafton Street busker’s genius.
Of course what Hansard has picked up from his 25 years coming in out of the rain is the maturing of his craft. I am not sure of any other songwriter, that I follow the career of, who has simply got better and better. Tonight’s set is strongly weighted on the brilliant new record Didn’t He Ramble. It is unapologetically a forty five year old singer channeling his heroes, Morrison, Dylan, Cohen and Springsteen. He takes all of those and adds the fact that none of those busked away their teens on Grafton Street and that makes him different!
The concert is an array of genres and sounds. Blues and folk and New Orleans Gospel, strings and horns and no instrumentation at all. Then every now and again his Frames soul kicked in and he swooped and soared in the way that only The Frames can. It was simply mesmerising. You cannot take your eyes or ears off it.
Highlights were a plenty but his jousting cover of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks with double bass player Joe Doyle got ecstatically intense with those wee Frames doses and was followed by Revelate, a reminder Hansard was ploughing the spiritual furrow for many a long year; “Sometimes I need a revelation…”
Falling Slowly done of course by both The Frames and Swell Season is not a popular tune for no reason and though this Hansard audience knew every word of every song they sounded particularly good on this one.
The unreleased Way Back In The Way Back When particularly caught my attention. A dirt riff blues it was so authentic that I assumed it was a cover. Apparently not. On other night’s Glen has introduced the song as a work in progress, one that is still mysterious in its meaning. It is about a journey, almost an exodus and could be this year’s refugees or the children of Israel heading to the Promised Land. It is great!
The one from last encore will live long in the audiences memory. Again standing at the edge of the stage away from the power of microphones Hansard gathered his band around him and they all took a verse of Brendan Behan’s (maybe his brother’s actually) The Auld Triangle. Even a mixed Belfast crowd got in on the iconic cultural come-all-ye but what took some believing was when the roadies even started taking verses. Do you have to do vocal auditions to get onto this fella’s back stage crew? Last verse to a woman in the crowd and the busker night was all but done.
One more. Her Mercy took us back to the strength of the new record. Winning Streak, Paying My Way and the delicate My Little Ruin; wonderful. Lonely Deserter with the Springtseen Seeger Session brass. The strings on McCormick’s Wall with his preceding story about a night in Kildare with Lisa O’Neill, and those last lines; “And to all the Ó Díomasaigh singers/With their roots in holy ground/And forgiveness still lingers/In the bells above the town”.
The spiritual lingered above Belfast as we headed out into a rather too mild late December night, expecting to see Glen Hansard busking just outside the BBC. Such a treat that he came in out of the rain.