I pride myself on never being late for anything. But unavoidably late I am for Glen Hansard’s show at The Royal Festival Hall (it’s a long and boring story involving a room full of teenage guitarists - I will spare you) and I kick myself as I am ushered by torchlight to my seat and Hansard’s eleven-strong band (3 strings, 3 horns, 2 keys, drums, bass and guitar) promptly leave the stage in order that the man himself can take the piano alone. What?! I’ve arrived in the lull?! Dammit! I discover later than I’ve missed eight whole songs but, luckily for me, there’s plenty still to come.
Glen Hansard is (in theory) promoting his new album, Between Two Shores (review) though the set is suspiciously light on current material. The hall is full and the luxuriously wide stage peppered with more than a dozen intimate red lampshades… but where were we? Yes, over on the left, at the piano… in the blinkin’ lull. By his ninth offering, Mr H clearly has the audience (nearly 3000 of us) eating out of the palm of his hand and the solo portion begins with ‘Shelter’, inspired by a sit-in protest about homelessness in which the singer participated. The song sees Hansard’s familiar, passionate roar soaring over the simple chords and successfully hushing the warm and comfortably-seated audience. This is followed by a solo guitar rendition of ‘Time Will Be The Healer’ - one of only three songs taken from the new album - before the band retake the stage and the ukulele of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Vigilante Man’ (replete with some up-to-date lyrical enhancements) permits Hansard some right-on Trump-bashing. Faintly embarrassed at all the whoops of assent, Hansards admits “I know it’s cheap, I know it’s easy… I feel dirty.” The lull is officially over as the full-on rawk of ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ sees the band all going at it full tilt, so much so that Glen’s guitar is abandoned mid-song to facilitate some frankly dodgy dad-dancing. I guess playing at the RFH for the first time in your career does funny things to you…
Just when I thought it was as loud as the venue could possibly manage, the southern sludge and stomp of ‘Way Back in the Way Back When’ seems to make the whole place shake. The song segues nicely into ‘Lovevolve’, written (and sung tonight) by guitarist and Frames bandmate Rob Bochnik and is followed by the excellent ‘Wedding Ring’, in which trombone legend Curtis Fowlkes is invited centre stage to sing the second verse to cheers aplenty. The gospel juggernaut of ‘Her Mercy’ is the evening’s first false ending and its singalong hugeness is an utter delight (although I am properly deaf by now). The song neatly mutates into the Frames classic ‘Star Star’ - featuring a musical and verbal quote from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, scoring high on the warm-and-fuzzometer - before returning us to ‘Her Mercy’ once more. Naturally, not a seat remains unflipped; the whole place is upstanding.
The seven-song encore begins with the simply baffling ‘Banana Man’ before ‘Falling Slowly’ arrives - almost as late as me - to please the post-Once fanbase. Almost pointedly, Hansard then takes us right back to 1995 with the deliciously noisy, energetic and euphoric ‘Fitzcarraldo’. I’m prepared to bet it’s the heaviest thing anyone will hear at the Royal Festival Hall this year. The only way such raucousness can be followed is by going unplugged. And I mean actually unplugged. Hansard plays a couple of bars of ‘Grace Beneath The Pines’ before taking the jack lead out of the guitar and stepping the other side of the mic to finish the song without the aid of electricity. It’s a bold move in a venue of this size but one that pays off. As ‘Grace…’ segues into ‘Song of Good Hope’ the warm-and-fuzzometer goes off the scale and I’m satisfied that the lull I walked in on earlier was, in fact, just the pre-lull lull; the warm-up lull, if you will.
But, naturally, the night cannot end in a lull. ‘Lowly Deserter’ allows the whole band to get fully stuck in again (including more spotlighting for Mr Fowlkes) before the unexpected ‘Rainy Night In Soho’ - which is dedicated to members of The Pogues ‘clan’ in attendance - brings the show to its full conclusion. Ending the set like this is a mark of Glen Hansard’s generosity and humility as an artist, as well as being a reminder of what good songwriters McGowan and co. are. Hansard’s personable and human stage persona (which, let’s face it, is probably not a persona at all) is a big part of his charm too and it’s heartening that it remains intact at this very prestigious London venue. With three solo albums now under his belt and a wealth of material from The Frames and Swell Season back catalogues, Glen Hansard can choose from a substantial and varied body of work. Tonight, he enchanted the crowd (latecomers included) with a little taste of it all.
Review by Rich Barnard