Glen Hansard, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 28 September 2011

Two days after seeing The Thing at Porgy & Bess, I was back there for a solo concert by Irish singer-songwriter and main Frame Glen Hansard. (How many other people saw both gigs, I wonder? Not many, I’d venture to say.) As with the last time I saw Hansard with his other group The Swell Season, I’m still quite taken aback by how popular this man is. The gig having sold out two months ago, there were people outside the venue holding up hastily scrawled signs pleading for tickets, while inside, there was barely room to move both upstairs and downstairs (the lower level, unusually for Porgy & Bess, having been given over to standing punters). Normally I’m all in favour of a bit of up-close-and-personal by getting close to the stage, but on this occasion I was very happy indeed to take the more detached view from the balcony. Not only was downstairs uncomfortably cramped, I also spotted from my vantage point a bloke waving his arms around and dancing idiotically to practically every song. Knowing my luck, I’d have been stuck right next to this loser if I’d been downstairs.

Where was I? Oh yes, the music. Hansard is an exceptionally gifted singer-songwriter, one of the very few I’ve known who can take the standard “one man and his acoustic guitar” trope and fashion from it something that demands undivided attention and respect. The first song of the evening, though, was an acapella reading of “Spencer The Rover”, the traditional English folk song made famous by John Martyn – a beautiful rendition that held the entire audience in rapt silence. A warm smile flickered across Hansard’s face as he sang – there was no enforced jollity and no lumpen attempts at humour, just a twinkling acknowledgement of the innately communal experience of live performance. Hansard was clearly happy to be in Vienna, and made frequent reference to the fact that it had been ten years since he had first played here with his friend and fellow singer-songwriter, the late Mic Christopher.

As the evening went on, it was this sense of an affectionate, yet wholly serious conversation being conducted between performer and audience that came across in every note Hansard played and each syllable he sang. That intimacy was inscribed in the natural, easygoing banter between songs, in the heartfelt drama of Hansard’s lyrics, in the emotional strength of his voice and in the astonishing dexterity and power of his guitar playing. Indeed, that wrecked-looking instrument was the source of some of the evening’s most delicious surprises. Hansard made liberal use of loops and effects pedals throughout the performance, transforming acoustic into electric and compellingly broadening the form of his miniature symphonies. That said, two of the starkest moments came when Hansard sat down at the unamplified piano at the back of the stage and sang off-mike, and when he did the same thing on guitar while standing at the front of the stage.

The highlights, though, were the songs I’d hoped Hansard would play: his blissful reimagining of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”, and the lovelorn triptych from Once – “Lies”, “Falling Slowly” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up” – songs which have been living gently in my head for years now, their broken beauty as compelling and eloquent as ever. A rousing take on Dylan’s “Forever Young” and he was gone, but the memories of this night will take a lot longer to shift.

Concerts of 2010

Here’s some kind of list of the concerts I enjoyed most in 2010, with links to the reviews I wrote at the time. In no particular order…

1. Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Martinschlössl, Vienna
2. The Swell Season, Museumsquartier, Vienna
3. Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love/Lasse Marhaug, Blue Tomato, Vienna
4. Swans, Arena, Vienna
5. Naked Lunch, Arena, Vienna
6. Suzanne Vega, Konzerthaus, Vienna
7. Peter Hammill, Posthof, Linz
8. Heaven And, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf
9. Oliver Welter, Radiokulturhaus, Vienna
10. The Thing XL, Konfrontationen Festival, Nickelsdorf

The Swell Season, Vienna Museumsquartier, 10 February 2010

Absolutely wonderful evening of passionate, finely wrought folk rock from the gifted Glen Hansard and his group. And yes, this is very much Hansard’s night, despite solo turns from Marketa Irglova and the violinist. Their spots were very pretty, but you just wanted him to take centre stage again and electrify the place. Which he did, with every single song.

Where on earth have The Swell Season sprung from? In the first place, this concert was sold out weeks in advance and I only just managed to secure tickets. I’d never been to Halle E of the Museumsquartier before, and I thought it was going to be some cosy little theatre. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find that it was far, far bigger than I had expected, with rows of seats going way back and a huge buzz around the room. I guess this is an example of (richly deserved) success being gained through word of mouth rather than hype; granted I’m not exactly an avid consumer of entertainment media, but I’m unaware of any huge promotional effort being made by, about or around this group. Hansard’s other outfit, The Frames, aren’t exactly megastars either, so I can’t imagine that the audience for this show consisted mostly or even largely of Frames fans. And as for Once, the film that first brought Hansard and Irglova to the attention of the wider public – was it really that much of a success? I never tire of telling anyone who will listen (and many who won’t) that I saw the film at the cinema well before its Oscar success (see here), but it’s plainly one of those films that has had a long afterlife on DVD.

In any event, Hansard is a stunningly powerful singer, songwriter and guitarist. His voice has this quality of epic yearning fuelled by the passion of his songs and by the flawless musicians around him. He exudes a ragged intimacy with his beat-up old guitar and warm-hearted, likeable stage presence – but there’s absolutely nothing perfunctory or indifferent about his performance. A solo version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” was powered by unbelievably fast-paced and frenzied guitar work, while another solo song was taken off-mike, taking the entire audience into rapt silence. A good-natured, tongue-in-cheek encore of “Rock Me Amadeus” brought the audience to its feet, while the last song saw Hansard tearing at his guitar with such force that every string was broken. Having no more to give, having given so much, the concert ended – an evening of endless exquisite highs, and an early contender for show of the year.