Glen Hansard is almost a mythical force in my mind. When I hear a voice I like, I usually soon after realize that I like it because it is almost like Hansard’s. My love of Hansard and his gritty, passionate vocal began with his movie Once, which led me to dig for details about his life. He dropped out of school at 13 to busk on the streets of his native Dublin, and after gaining success in Ireland with his band the Frames, he really made it big when he got together with Marketa Irglova in the Swell Season.
When Hansard plays, he plays hard. So hard in fact that his guitar has a gaping hole in it, where his hand has repeatedly strummed. Though it is worn and road-tested to death, it shares those qualities with his voice, the imperfections actually improving the sound.
Last night at Le Poisson Rouge was less a concert than an intimate and rare peek into a private jam session. Hansard, with a seven-piece band behind him, played an epic three-hour set whose focus drifted from his solo debut to Levon Helm covers about halfway through. The show, the night before a much larger one at the Beacon Theater, felt special, not only because of its small size but also because of its casual, comfortable feel. According to Hansard, they had to play there (a much smaller venue than he is used to nowadays) because it was on that very stage that the beginnings of his recent album began to take shape.
Because of the unconventional location and size, Hansard felt free to mix things up and have fun with it. Hence, the set was full of guests and surprises. Legendary songwriter Desmond Child took the stage to play “Livin’ On A Prayer,” the song he wrote a few decades earlier. Singer/songwriters Lisa Hannigan and John Smith joined Hansard for a beautiful cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and even K’naan showed up to perform a mini freestyle, using Hansard’s guitar as percussion.
The marathon set never felt tiring, simply because Hansard has so much amazing material from throughout his past. He is so tied to his music that when he screams, he really screams, and everyone in the crowd can feel Hansard’s soul being bared. On songs like “Bird Of Sorrow” and “Leave,” he looked close to tears.
Hansard’s stage banter was as entertaining and charming as his music. Between sharing stories about his first time catching a cab and partying with Rufus Wainwright, he played a tender mandolin cover of R.E.M.’s “Hairshirt,” the first song he ever wept to. He even improvised little versions of “Respect” and “Sexual Healing” in the middle of other songs. The fact that he didn’t play mega-hit “Falling Slowly” actually made the show seem more unique. This wasn’t a concert; Glen was just playing some music for a couple hundred of his closest friends.