Review: Glen Hansard – Ulster Hall, Belfast

The Ulster Hall was packed to capacity for one of Belfast’s most highly anticipated gigs of the year – the inimitable Glen Hansard. I reviewed a Hansard gig barely 4 months ago. On that occasion in Vicar Street I hadn’t planned to, but was so moved by the performance that I began scribbling notes in every white space I could find on an old electricity bill that I retrieved from the bottom of my bag. That was one of my favourite gigs of all time, but still I was concerned that I might not find much new to say when reviewing him again so soon. I needn’t have worried!

As he walked onto the stage, he was followed by no less than eleven other musicians and they opened with Roll on Slow, the first track from Hansard’s upcoming album, Between Two Shores. One of high points of the evening came early when he followed that with a hymn of Belfast, Van the Man’s G.L.O.R.I.A.

A quick change of guitar (of which they were many) and we were treated to another song from the imminent album, the stunning One of Us Must Lose. Some fans may already be familiar with this track since it was co-written with Martha Wainwright and appeared on her 2016 album Goodnight City.

Hansard’s version of an Irish blessing came in the form of Winning Streak. Parts of the song were sung acapella, and the audience obliged with backing vocals, providing the “woo-hoo-hoos” for the refrain. “There’s no welcome like a Belfast welcome”, he told us.

My Little Ruin is a very affecting song from the 2015 album Didn’t He Ramble, and in his preamble to live performances of this song Hansard has often explained how it was inspired by a friend who is brilliantly talented but a monumental fuck up. A man who can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at every turn. I’d never before though heard him divulge the identity of the subject. Tonight he says, that friend is already drunk and they’d had to “have a word” with him and dispatch him to the back of the hall. And that is when we learned that the song was an ode to none other than Colin Davidson!

From one intensely emotive song straight into another and it was almost too much to take! Glen Hansard plays guitar with such vigour and sings with all the emotion of his soul so that he often reduces audiences to tears and When Your Mind’s Made Up is a perfect example of that. Shifting from melodic singing to chaotic playing to a full frenzied guitar solo over which the audience took it upon themselves to sing the entire chorus while he stood out on the edge of the stage in near darkness just watching over us.

A song dedicated to his mother was next, Bird of Sorrow. “Right now, she’s in Dublin, in the Bingo”, he told us. “Send her a winning thought”. The 12-piece band afforded us a fabulous spectacle with its three-piece string and three-piece brass sections underpinning the touching message of, “Love is gonna find us, we gotta be ready then”.

Moving to the piano Glen talked about last Christmas’s NAMA building episode, telling us how a conversation in the pub escalated very quickly from discussing the dire homelessness situation in Dublin to, “we should fucking do something”, to “I’ve got a crowbar and a high-viz jacket – let’s go!” Within a day he’d appeared on The Late Late Show to announce that he’d just been involved in an act of civil disobedience. Admirably he and others had decided that the NAMA building belonged to the people and they were going to take control if it. Naivety he said, was their greatest asset, “If I’d known what I was getting myself into, I’d never have done it!” Thankfully they did and their efforts to support homeless charities did not stop there. To rapturous applause he told us that the proceeds from the night’s event were to be donated to SIMON Community Belfast.

The song which followed was written for a young man he’d met in Apollo House, a lad called Tom and his girlfriend who’d opted to sleep on the streets rather than be separated because the shelters refused to let them share a room due to some ridiculous, antiquated, religious rule. Tom had shared with him how with just a little support and a few basic needs he could turn his life around. Glen told us that all he’d done was put his words to music.

Hansard’s own version of Woody Guthrie’s Vigilante Man is inspired by a modern-day villain and evoked defiant cheers from the assembled crowd as he testified to all Donald Trump’s bigotries; his vilification of Muslims, his refusal to condemn the clan and his plans to build a divisive wall for which he doesn’t want to pay. Suggestive of Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd the song criticises Trump’s desire to close borders “with his fountain-pen”.

Another political message ensued with Way Back in the Way Back When. Then there was the beautiful Didn’t He Ramble, beginning like a traditional Irish lament and with a lovely vocal harmony with Rob Bochnik, the song launches halfway through into powerful electric guitar. Wheels On Fire came from the pending album and describes that irritation when someone just won’t stop getting on your nerves! Wreckless Heart too, is another brand new one.

And then it happened. The song of the night for me. The mighty Fitzcarraldo! Distorted guitars, stirring strings, a trad solo with even a bit of a jig from Hansard himself, this song had it all. He interacted with every other musician on the stage, the rapport between them is tangible, and the music rose to a symphony; a crescendo fit to lift the roof right off. This is Frames era Hansard at his very best.

As has been known to happen at a Hansard gig, a cry of “Marry Me!” rang out across the darkness, prompting Glen to ask for the lights to be brought up so he could get a look at us all. “Where’s Colin?” he shouted. “Where’s Davidson?”, and as one the audience turned around to see the grinning, waistcoated artist waving wildly from the rear balcony. In his best Belfast accent Glen greeted his friend with, “Sticking out!”

Falling Slowly, the Oscar winning track from the movie Once was dedicated to beautiful Marketa Irglova. The effect of the entire capacity crowd singing together was really something, and even Hansard was moved to exclaim simply – “Yeah!” People really love him – and he seems to love them. He certainly loves doing what he does.

A special treat was when Hansard’s legendary jazz trombonist, the super-smooth Curtis Fowlkes took the lead vocal for Wedding Ring. Stepping in for the verse that begins, “There’s a wildcat in you woman, a wildcat on the prowl”, Fowlkes is ice-cool and his trombone solo was as groovy as any I’ve heard.

The exquisite Her Mercy was the finale, more than two hours after he first took to the stage.

The first encore began with Hansard’s lone voice and a slow violin, “There’ll be no more running round for me, No more backing down you’ll see, Whatever lies in store for me, I’ll get through it”, the spectacular Grace Beneath the Pines. The haunting mood continued with The Song of Good Hope; totally stripped back, just Hansard front of stage under a single spotlight. You could have heard a pin drop until the last note, when ecstatic whistles and cheers burst forth.

Always a droll storyteller Hansard then admitted to his own propensity to mistake his respect for another person’s talent, for full-blown love. This had led to a complete and all-consuming passion for Angus Young during his formative years. On that note, McCormac’s Wall was offered up as an apology to Lisa O’Neill, “A wonderful woman who almost allowed me to love her – and I fucked up”. The song is of a perfect love that is wonderful for what it was, even if it didn’t work out. It ends with a trad section, and with twanging fiddles and plinky piano the effect was of an authentic auld style ceili. Fitting then that he went straight into the rollicking Rocky Road to Dublin before thanking us for an absolutely wonderful night and leaving the stage again.

The crowd weren’t going to let him away with that though! Feet stomping, chanting and whistling persisted until the twelve-strong band came back onstage for a third time. “Rocky Road to Dublin? What on earth possessed me?” Glen asked, before saying, “I need to balance it out in this beautiful city of Belfast”. He has always been a devoted Van Morrison fan, so it was so exciting to hear those transcendental opening strains of Into the Mystic. And when he sang, “I wanna rock your gypsy soul, Just like way back in the days of old, then magnificently we will float into the mystic”, he did rock our souls, and we did float away. It was stunning.

By this time the gig had been over two-and-a-half hours long. Pound for pound he certainly gives you your money’s worth. The group of people I was with had varying experience of Frames/Hansard music, some were total Hansard novices – but each one asserted that they had been blown away by the power of the performance. Heading out of the majestic hall we noted that one poor girl was sobbing, so overwhelmed was she. Music of this calibre has that effect on people, and Glen Hansard consistently wows audiences wherever he goes.