I believe it might have been Bruce Springsteen who, in some lost interview, narrowed folk rock songwriting down to a basic formula: Use the verse to tell the story and use the chorus as a prayer. I probably have the canon wrong somewhere in there, but it’s a formula that didn’t fail Glen Hansard last Thursday at the Orpheum Theater. Between the balladeer sighs and the explosive choruses, I thought I stumbled into a bedside prayer-turned-rockist awakening.
Hansard always tended to lean on that grounded, storyteller kind of songwriting. Even when Hansard wailed with The Frames, whose spunkier, raucous Dublin rock might seem out of place among the a cappella traditionals and hushed seaport rock of modern Hansard, he would write about the average folks with average problems with a religious sense.
But if the Hansard of The Frames was the everyman-turned-rock-singer, then the Hansard on stage was relatable enough to have been a long-lost brother. In between songs, while his brass section cooled down and guitar techs switched out tattered acoustic guitars, Hansard would talk to the audience, introducing the guitar techs that worked in darkness behind him and apologizing to an audience member for his colorful language.
“The Irish had English beaten into them—we thought we’d give it back all fucked up,” Hansard tried to explain in one of his monologues. “Sorry Clark.”
Hansard introduced his band with a little more subtlety. Taking the stage seemingly alone, Hansard stood away from the microphones and instruments, projecting his quiet hymn, “Grace Beneath the Pines,” to the audience. Slowly, the lights illuminated the rest of his band, who added strings and horns as Hansard’s introduction swayed with the music.
Hansard remained quiet through the first few songs, jumping between Didn’t He Ramble cuts with near fluidity as the band shuffled behind him. But it wasn’t until “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” a highlight off of the “Once”soundtrack, that Hansard and company really blew up the stage. Hansard frantically beat at the strings on his guitar and leapt around the stage while horns took up the choral melody behind a rollicking cascade of drum fills.
“This has been a hard week for touring,” Hansard said as the rest of the band vacated the stage yet again, leaving the folk singer with his guitar alone. “A massive disturbance fucked all of us in the music world.” He picked a few strings on his guitar. “Sorry Clark, but it’s fucked.”
He sighed again, picking a few more notes. “This is to all the bands in their fifth or sixth song in some bar,” Hansard said, dedicating the next few notes to “Stay the Road.” It was one of the show’s more solemn moments; the song didn’t really speak as much as the atmosphere, as the audience quietly listened to the normally snippy Hansard silently ruminate for the mourning musical world.
But Hansard didn’t stick to melodrama for long. A few songs later, he was laughing about getting words wrong in the middle of a song, apologizing to Clark again and spinning tales of his first trip to America years ago. There were working-class odes to fathers (“He was always very good about work,” Hansard would grin. “Only missed two or three days… a week.”) and Irish shanties (the touching “McCormack’s Wall” that wrapped up with a theater-wide folk stomper).
His finale, “The Gift,” burst with E Street fanfare, building from a quiet rumbling to an explosion of bombastic count-offs and rolling rhythms that pulled together all of Hansard’s backing band. They bowed as the cinematic rollicking came to an end, thanking the audience while the lights dimmed.
As an encore, Hansard returned to the stage, standing atop one of the speakers at the side with his acoustic guitar and nothing else. Tuning to one of the few Frames songs played that night, Hansard spun through a quiet version of “Once’s” “Say It to Me Now.” He was soon joined by opening act Aoife O’Donovan, who assisted in the almost obligatory “Falling Slowly,” the gorgeous Academy Award winner from “Once” and one of the most beautiful songs in Hansard’s songbook.
But Hansard finished the set on a more rapturous note. Looking into the crowd, he asked for Moji, the honorary band member whose soulful voice enthralled Hansard one night in 2009. “We usually hear her before we see her,” Hansard laughed as he introduced the singer with the first few notes of “Her Mercy.” A song of redemption, Moji’s vocals soared through the theater. It doesn’t matter that the crowd missed its cues; Moji’s voice and Hansard’s horns propelled the tune to righteous deliverance.
The dust settled and everyone gathered on the stage, arms around each other as Hansard beckoned to his audience. Thanking the Orpheum crowd, the entire band started singing “The Auld Triangle,” Brendan Behan’s Irish classic. As each member added their own verse, the audience carried the chorus. As a thousand-strong congregation, the audience sang each word as Hansard thanked them and, after one final bow, left the stage.