Glen Hansard is a man not lacking in intensity, or enthusiasm. Catching many audience members unawares by striding onstage at 7.30pm on the dot with no support act, Hansard explains that he and his band simply don’t want to waste a second of stage time with us.
He opens with a suite of relatively new songs from 2015 album Didn’t He Ramble, from the bouncy folk stroll of Winning Streak to the home truths-laden My Little Ruin. Despite his Irish accent and worldly, grizzled demeanour, Winning Streak’s frequent allusions to the Southern Cross betray an easy-going familiarity with the country that helps further win over the already enthusiastic crowd.
With strings and horns in tow, Hansard’s 10-piece band capably explore his full range, from quiet, whispered moments to bombastic, full band climaxes that peak with howled vocal harmonies that descend into pure, wordless catharsis. Occasionally though, this is to the detriment of Hansard’s songwriting – including horns on Once highlight When Your Mind’s Made Up adds a perfunctory side of schmaltz to what is an otherwise perfectly tempered serve of frustrated regret.
Hansard doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight with his comrades, frequently stepping back to allow others to take the microphone. The most notable example is love ditty Wedding Ring, in which towering American trombonist Curtis Fowlkes reveals himself to be a wonderfully smooth crooner.
Despite the frequently angst-ridden subject matter, there’s still plenty of levity to be found throughout the set, from a spontaneous cover of Suspicious Minds to a remarkably well executed, and completely sincere mid-song tribute to Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka (Hansard sung both the upbeat Pure Imagination and the foreboding boat song, presumably prompting nervous childhood flashbacks for many in the audience).
Hansard’s inter-song patter is basically an extended personal history of drinking, from his father and the “druncles” he would stumble back to the family home with to Hansard’s own fondness for “peeking through the velvet curtain” into tipsiness. Although he pauses to stress that alcoholism is indeed serious and can be a source of real darkness, most of his accounts are pretty light–hearted even when you can sense a bit of uncomfortable subtext (one story about helping the persistent ex of his favourite New York bartender pen a song to win her back sounds a lot less whimsical when you really think about it for a moment). But then again, his songs more than cover the deeper, more turbulent flip side to these boozy romantic episodes.
Elsewhere, an anecdote about being moved while visiting the Woodie Guthrie Museum and viewing unpublished Guthrie lyrics about Donald Trump’s father Fred leads into an updated cover of Guthrie’s Vigilante Row, tweaked by Hansard into a middle finger to apathetic landlords everywhere (and their bonkers, reality star slash presidential nominee sons).
Oscar-winning ballad Falling Slow offered a crowd-pleasing end to the main set, but Hansard isn’t nearly done with us. A six song encore includes two completely acoustic numbers that highlight the intimacy at the core of Hansard’s songwriting, even when being belted up into the dress circle of a mid-sized theatres.
After two and half hours of music you can’t help but be impressed by Hansard’s conviction. At the very least, his explanation for starting so punctually makes a lot of sense in hindsight.
Glen Hansard performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Thursday, October 20.
Photos: Danny Clinch (header), Conor Masterson (body, supplied)