Review: Glen Hansard – Vicar Street, Dublin
One of the worst nights of rain that I can remember almost put paid to Monday night’s Glen Hansard gig in the legendary Vicar Street venue. On taking the stage Hansard explained that there was a real risk that the venue could lose power and that we’d all have to be evacuated. Apparently an emergency meeting had been convened and he’d been asked whether or not he thought they should cancel the performance. His first response had been that that wasn’t really his department, but his second was that if at all possible, he really wanted to play for the assembled crowd. Although he said he was sure he’d spend the night feeling constantly worried, the decision was taken to go ahead and for that I am thankful. This turned out to be a highlight of over twenty years of attending gigs – a stunningly memorable performance.
In a show that lasted not a kick in the arse off three hours it’d be difficult to comment on the full set list. In fact, I’m not so sure that’d be the way to approach a gig like this one anyway. The gorgeous poetry of Hansard’s lyrics, the power of his voice, the intense emotion of his performance and the love emanating from the crowd made the gig so much more than the sum of its parts.
He started though with “High Hope” from the 2012 Rhythm and Repose album. This was followed by “Winning Streak” from his latest album Didn’t He Ramble, which with the lyrics; “Through summers long and winters cold, May you always have someone good to hold, And may good fortune wait on every bend, And may your winning streak, May it never end”, is akin to an old Irish blessing. He quipped though that on an Irish night such as this, to reverse the sentiment to; “through winters long and summers cold” might be more fitting.
An important issue was addressed when Glen took pains to explain details surrounding the NAMA Building affair last Christmas when together with a number of other high profile celebrities, he helped commandeer a government controlled building in which to house Dublin’s homeless during a particular cold snap. Moving to the piano he gave us his take on the incident, explaining that in his naivety he’d half expected the government to commend them for their efforts, say “ah fair play to ye lads”, and just let them keep the building – but sadly it didn’t pan out that way.
The majority of audience members knew about the incident I’m sure, but what he really wanted to address was the issue of some €200,000 which had been donated by the Irish public. He reassured fans that while it hadn’t yet all been spent, it was held in a Go Fund account and was being gradually meted out to smaller initiatives aiming to tackle homelessness in the city since more prominent organisations like SIMON and Focus Ireland were government funded and not at liberty to accept such donations. He explained that he’d felt compelled to clarify this since people had rightly been asking questions and he said that he hoped it would all be spent before this Christmas since by then (he hinted tantalisingly) they would have other plans afoot. With that he began a moving tribute to a young homeless man whom he met at the time with a song as yet unrecorded as far as I can tell, “Shelter Me”, dedicated to Tom.
Songs from his work with The Swell Season – his project with Marketa Irglova – were also heard tonight, including the beautiful In These Arms and the song which made me sob for the first of several times that evening, the very affecting “When Your Mind’s Made Up”. “Bird of Sorrow” from Rhythm and Repose also featured; “I wrote this for me ma” he told us, and it’s a moving acknowledgement to his mother with whom he has had a difficult relationship, reassuring her that despite their struggles he won’t leave her and that he’ll be around for whatever the future brings.
While not known for being a protest singer, Glen Hansard doesn’t shy away from the controversial, and his reworking of the Woody Guthrie classic “Vigilante Man” was pretty provocative. Scathing lyrics made reference not only to Korea, Guam and the threat of nuclear war, but also to Trump’s refusal to denounce the “clan”, hinting that it was them and their kind who voted him into power. It’s a sad indictment of how little has changed to consider that lyrics written by Guthrie almost seventy years ago about Fred Trump – his reviled landlord and Donald Trump’s father – could be mistaken as having been written about the son; “I suppose Old Man Trump knows, Just how much racial hate, he stirred up in the bloodpot of human hearts, When he drawed that color line”.
Several times throughout the evening Glen mentioned the celebrated Begley family and the affection in which he holds them. Cormac Begley played squeezebox on stage with him tonight, John Hegarty’s lilting “Limerick Town” was dedicated to his life-long friend the artist Siobhan Begley, and a song from Didn’t He Ramble was prefaced with a story which began with Brendan Begley asking him; “do you want to come on a boat?” That story continued with the amusing but ultimately tragic tale of the time he spent sailing around the coast of Spain in a curragh with Begley and the renowned Irish language poet Danny Sheehy as part of the Camino na Sáile or “camino by sea”. The leg of the journey on which Hansard himself took part was full of memories of singing and friendship, laughter and drinking, but sadly on a later leg during which Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí was a part of the crew, the curragh capsized and Sheehy later died. After quoting a charming prayer to the whiskey which Sheehy recited to them daily on their travels, he sang “McCormack’s Wall” and by the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Returning to the topical Glen sang a song that was originally penned to remember the plight of the Irish forced to emigrate to America several generations ago but which is equally evocative of the current refugee crisis. He recalled how while travelling across Europe in the comparative luxury of his tour bus he witnessed first hand, whole families walking the roadsides trying to make their way to safety and freedom. “Way Back in the Way Back When” from the 2016 EP A Season on the Line is an emotive account of the life of the displaced who were; “livin’, breathin’, broken, battered but believin’”.
Tracks from the back catalogue of Hansard’s erstwhile band The Frames also got an airing and these brought about some of the most raucous crowd reactions. When a roadie carried on Glen’s electric guitar and he launched into the opening bars of “Revelate” from The Frames 1996 album Fitzcarraldo, the crowd instantly went wild. Almost to a man the fans were singing along from the first note and the atmosphere, like the guitar, was electric. I never had the chance to go to a Nirvana gig but in my estimation, it must have felt something like this! “Santa Maria” too, from the 2001 Frames album For the Birds, sustained the highly charged mood. The rising to a crescendo of his distinctive percussive slapping on the strings culminated in a distorted guitar sound that was thrilling.
The unrelenting emotional wax and wane continued when we were invited to remember the excruciating pain of young love and the sensation of jealousy that it can induce in his prelude to the evocative “What Happens When the Heart Stops?” It’s a plaintive account of that feeling when trust begins to disappear from a relationship and you long for the capacity to just shut the feelings off. Star Star then ended The Frames tracks for this set and as he is wont to do, Hansard wandered into a snippet from a totally different song, in this case “Pure Imagination” from the Willy Wonka soundtrack.
At that, it seemed like the night was coming to the beginning of the end. The opening strains of “Falling Slowly” seemed to signal the start of the big crowd pleasers with which most artists will end their shows. “I’ll bet you’re all sick of this one?”, he asked and when the audience objected he said, “Well I’m f*****g sick of it”. Then in his best Don La Fontaine voice he mockingly parodied the trailer to his hit movie Once; “Once – a love story”, and joked that weirdly this exact song could simultaneously be playing just a few streets away in the Olympia Theatre where the stage version is currently running. Shouts and requests from the crowd distracted him however and after adoring cries of “Brazil loves you” and “Iceland loves you” amongst others, he changed his mind and instead sang the exquisite “Her Mercy”, promising; “And when you’re ready for her mercy, And you’re worthy, It will come”. The palpable love of the crowd and the ceaseless requests for favourite songs seemed to visibly move Hansard to decide that curfew be damned, he was playing on, and in fact he didn’t return to “Falling Slowly” until he’d played at least another half dozen songs.
By this point it was after eleven, and even after more than two hours it was easy to discern the intense disappointment of the few people who were apparently forced to don their coats and leave before the show was over – I can only guess in order to catch a last train home. They couldn’t have known quite how much they were going to miss. Hansard told us that he was warmed by the response he’d received and disclosed that in fact he’d been dreadfully nervous to play a totally solo gig after not having done it for a long time. It was also extremely rare he told us, to play on any stage where he wasn’t being urged to get off. Only in Ireland he said, was everyone more concerned with hearing the music than clock watching. And with that he proceeded to play until close to midnight.
In that closing portion of the show Hansard seemed to choose whatever songs the spirit moved him to play, honouring some sadly departed artists in the process. For his old friend Mic Christopher’s “Heyday” he was joined on stage by Frames guitarist Simon Goode; he also performed “Dark Days”, a classic by Fergus O’Farrell the former frontman of Interference who passed away last year. His supporting acts from tonight were called back on stage at intervals; Stephen James Smith performed his thundering twelve-minute epic poem entitled “My Ireland” while Cormac Begley returned to play squeezebox for a fast-paced traditional tune which further showcased the versatility of Hansard’s guitar skills. He then invited onto stage a Hungarian busker whom he’d met by chance in a Dublin pub after an “accidentally” drunken afternoon.
An impromptu rendition of “Rhinestone Cowboy” in honour of Glen Campbell who passed away this week was also squeezed in before he eventually came back to “Falling Slowly” which he’d started almost an hour before! It genuinely felt like he’d embraced his audience so much that he had forgotten all about the time and was having the after-show party right there on stage and we were all invited.
But in time, all good things must come to an end and he brought Tadhg Williams and Jane Willow back to accompany him in Leonard Cohen’s “Passing Through” before saying goodnight and finally leaving the stage.
I don’t recall ever feeling as emotional at the end of a gig as I did just then. The exhilaration of the concert may of course have been intensified by the ever-present threat hanging over us that we might be ejected out onto Thomas Street in the tipping rain at any moment. More likely though, that feeling came from the fact that Glen Hansard plays and sings like his life depends on it. The heightened emotion he exudes is spectacular to see. This was an unforgettable night and one that is going to be very hard to top.