By Bernard Zuel
Some things are meant to loosen their grip. But they don’t.
I was at this concert, in the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, and there was in theory nothing to surprise me, including the length which was heading towards Springsteen-ish three-hour territory.
After all, it was certainly not the first time I’d seen Glen Hansard. Recorded several years ago now (October 2016, and shown on the Opera House site during the first Covid shutdown in 2020), this night had been preceded by nights seeing him out front of The Frames nearly 20 years earlier, as well as shows as a duo (with Marketa Iglova, his co-star in the movie/musical Once), solo and with a backing band.
Each had their appeal, not least the sweat and joy of those Frames shows where collective action and collective reaction bound us in the fervour of his storytelling songs. But it was also found in the intimacy of those duo shows where the lightness of the touch belied the heaviness of the emotion in songs from the movie that reflected their own (by then already over) relationship.
Nonetheless, surprise there was because what this Opera House show offered was the physical punch of a full band, with brass and strings, led by a rousing collectivist singer, matched with the close-quarters personal effect of a solo show – an effect that was not just because there were some songs in a minimalist setup (with little more than piano or, in one memorable, glorious, transcendent part, with just a bass accompaniment to his acoustic guitar) but because Hansard centered everything in a one-on-one atmosphere of joy and wonder.
Not for nothing did George Palathingal give this four-and-a-half stars in his Sydney Morning Herald review.
And now? And now it holds up. More than holds up. Put it this way, there are many times listening to the recording now that I still feel shivers, and not just from memory.
In When Your Mind’s Made Up, which begins small, eases into a light jazz groove over which guitar sparkles, and then increases its tempo, temperature and force until it twice peaks, Hansard and band push through everything. In Falling Slowly (the breakout song from Once), the strings, acoustic and piano provide the featherbed for the two voices to fall back onto, almost spent. And then, in Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, with only Joe Doyle’s marvellous bass joining him, there is fluidity, sensuality, hurt and a remarkable, crowd-enhanced, raw explosion of a climax.
There’s more – a lot more given this is a double album, which still doesn’t include everything from the show – like the melancholic optimism of McCormick’s Wall’s Irish folk, the interlude of yarn spinning and gentle enhancement that was the feature spot for pianist Peadar O’Riada in Aisling Gheal, and the support and comfort of the opening Winning Streak, whose message of hope feels ever more relevant.
(Interestingly, that wasn’t the opening song on the night – Just To Be The One, also from the Didn’t He Ramble album, was the first song played. But in our Covid-afflicted time, Winning Streak feels perfect and justifies the setlist fudge.)
When the show and album end with Her Mercy, it is a chance to capture all the elements of the night: quiet, intimacy, trust, escalating energy, joyous communal atmosphere, raucous drive, folk soul and sunshine.
Two thirds of the way through Her Mercy, Hansard says “this concert’s going straight to the pool room”. He may have been caught up in the moment, but he wasn’t wrong on the night, and he’s not wrong now.