Being the film buff that I am, I was first introduced to Glen Hansard through his role in John Carney’s 2007 movie, Once, which is about the struggles of working-class Dublin musicians. Or at least, that’s what I thought. I realized later that I had actually been introduced to Hansard through his role in Alan Parker’s 1991 movie, The Commitments, which is about the struggles of working-class Dublin musicians. (All glibness aside, both are fantastic films that are well worth your time.)
Arguably this introduction via film should not have been the case, as Hansard has been active with his influential band, The Frames, since 1990. Since the success of Once — an Academy Award winner for Best Original Song — Hansard’s public profile has expanded dramatically, most notably in his work with his Once co-star Markéta Irglová as The Swell Season. Last month saw the release of Hansard’s first solo album, Rhythm and Repose, and the day after said release Hansard took the stage at The Wiltern for the first date of his tour in support of the record.
By the singer’s own admission, he and his band were still working out the songs, having convened in LA earlier in the week for a single day of rehearsal. (Hansard described an encounter with a friend who had been rehearsing in the same studio for the past 2 months: “Jesus Christ. Maybe we should’ve taken a little more than one day.”) Far from diminishing the audience’s experience, however, the show’s rough edges gave it the intimate feeling of a late-night jam between friends, an impression reinforced by Hansard himself. The man is among the warmest, most earnest and genuine performers you could ever wish to see.
Seated at the keyboard and accompanied only by electric bass and a string trio, Hansard begins his set with a song from Rhythm and Repose, the slow-burning “The Storm, It’s Coming.” It’s a surprising move for a musician associated so strongly with his trademark guitar, a Takamine acoustic nicknamed The Horse with a distinctive hole in the body from years of over-enthusiastic pick work. Hansard mentions that The Horse had to undergo emergency surgery in Long Beach earlier that very day, and the performance of his third song, “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” gives the audience a clue as to why when it builds to an emotional crescendo that sees Hansard red in the face and strumming like a man possessed.
This is the first of many Swell Season songs that the band plays, including “Low Rising,” a number that follows a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for a fan in the audience and concludes with a pretty damn charming kick-and-”Whoo!” combination from Hansard himself. As I may have mentioned, he seems like a good dude. He goes electric for that one but soon dismisses his band for a run of solo acoustic numbers — “Leave,” “In These Arms,” “Say It to Me Now,” and “Astral Weeks” — that send harsh metallic reverberations from The Horse’s twin holes (that really sounds filthier than it should) echoing around the beautiful architecture of The Wiltern.
The band reappears after “Astral Weeks” — a Van Morrison cover that features more rapid-fire strumming, this time given an extra shot in the arm by a distortion pedal, Jeff Mangum-style — along with a mysterious chair that is soon filled by the aforementioned friend from the studio, who turns out to be Javier Mas, guitarist in Leonard Cohen’s band. Mas brings a moody flamenco flourish to the slow burn of “Back Broke” and “Paper Cup.” In combination with the vocal harmonies Hansard encourages the audience to provide on the former, the sound that fills the theatre is haunting, engrossing, mesmerizing. Following Mas’ departure, the band launches into a rendition of “Feeling the Pull” that is downright inspirational, a sentiment that is apparently shared by the musicians onstage. As Hansard puts it, “We’re having a fucking great time up here. Thank you.”
Two songs later it’s time for the encore, which begins with Rhythm and Repose’s “Song of Good Hope.” Hansard is once again clutching The Horse and backed by keys as well as the string trio. He and the rest of the band are then joined onstage by Lisa Hannigan and her band, fresh off their show at El Rey Theatre the previous evening. Hannigan plays “Little Bird” from her most recent album, Passenger, solo before both bands cram the stage for renditions of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Shape I’m In,” in tribute to the recently-deceased Levon Helms.
Hannigan and her band then depart but, in Hansard’s words, “We can’t leave it now. We gotta play you one more!” That one turns out to be “The Auld Triangle,” an Irish standard originally from the play The Quare Fellow. It’s a fine rendition highlighted by a beautiful fiddle solo and Hansard’s bassist singing that bit about the women’s prison, and the song provides a fitting conclusion to an evening of music steeped in both earnest tradition and freewheeling good vibes.
More info on Glen Hansard
Photography by Christine Perez