Published on December 21st, 2015 | by Brian Coney0
Glen Hansard @ Ulster Hall, Belfast
Glen Hansard stands at the edge of the stage, his dark attire all but blending in with the darkness, giving the strange appearance of a floating, disembodied head. He sings ‘Grace Beneath The Pines’, unamplified and accompanied only by a swelling string section, and his voice ghosts all around the interior of the concert hall. It captures the spirit of Josef Locke or John McCormack, namechecked by Hansard later on in the show, and as openings go, it is certainly an effective one. In fact, it sets the tone for the whole evening, which is more subdued than one might expect. Faithful fans will no doubt remember previous annual Frames gigs, raucous and jubilant affairs that turned the venue into one almighty fist-pumping hooley. While there are moments of unbridled noise tonight, such as the fuzzed-up coda to ‘Astral Weeks’ or the filthy blues of ‘Way Back In The Way Back When’, for the most part Hansard is in contemplative mood. Even ‘Revelate’, a Frames classic that proudly wears its Pixies influences on its sleeve, is stripped back and pared down to just Glen and bassist Joe Doyle. As ever, their natural bonhomie is due to their years of experience playing together both before and after Hansard’s rise to critical acclaim.
This slightly sombre approach is largely due to the fact that the setlist is largely lifted from Hansard’s latest album Didn’t He Ramble, which sees him transform into a mature and thoughtful songwriter worthy to be ranked alongside Morrison, Cohen and Dylan, the artists that he has always held up as personal touchstones. ‘Winning Streak’, sure to be a concert mainstay, is a lovely thing, defiant in lyric and rendered buoyant by brass and saxophone, as is ‘Lowly Deserter’, whose minor key oompah adds another flavour to Hansard’s already impressive canon. The emphasis throughout is on the music. Those who are well versed in Hansard’s meandering intros to songs might be surprised that there are only two or three this evening, most notably a very funny and self-mocking explanation of the meaning behind ‘McCormack’s Wall’ and a deeply sad anecdote about a trip to New York. The same, however, cannot be said for two or three gormless bumtrumpets in the audience, who do not have the good sense or, one expects, soberness to prevent themselves from making glottal utterances and numbskull comments, leading in turn to the traditional swathe of shushing and less polite chastisements from those in their vicinity. Hansard, to his credit, responds by doing what he does best: he laughs it off with a joke at his own expense and launches into another song.
The audience, of course, are already in the palm of Hansard’s hand before the gig even begins but by the time that he invites all of the band and crew up to sing ‘The Auld Triangle’, we are won over entirely. The evening finishes with ‘Her Mercy’, effectively a soul song that sees Hansard adopt the guise of Elvis in full-on evangelist mode, lifting his palms aloft towards Heaven. It is at once a wryly humorous image and a testament to the stirring power of his music. Long may he ramble. Ross Thompson
Photos by Alan Maguire