In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard admitted that a friend of his has nicknamed him “Earnest Strum,” because of his penchant for “the type of exceedingly sincere, traditionally rooted folk that Hansard has mostly been making for the past dozen years,” the article reads.
The soft, somber, sad-bastard reputation of Hansard’s certainly precedes him. A friend of mine tweeted just before heading to the concert that “trying to pump myself up for an extremely mellow concert is weird.” Such preconceptions are going to be the case for an artist who rose to fame by portraying a lonely, soft-spoken folk busker in a small independent film, 2007's Once.
“Falling Slowly,” one of the Hansard-written songs from the critically praised film, went on to win Hansard a slew of awards, including the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song. It’s a gorgeous, lilting dream of a song to be certain, but it’s not one that’s going to get a mosh pit swirling with frenzy. The 49-year-old Irishman’s latest record, The Wild Willing, has been rightfully described as a sonic departure, veering into what is a relatively more experimental terrain.
Electronic elements and a vastly different vocal approach give the new record a distinctly different personality, and on Saturday night at the Granada Theater in Dallas, the new songs, along with full-band arrangements of older material, created a night that was anything but plainly earnest or all that mellow. Earlier in the week, Hansard canceled three shows after losing his voice while suffering from the flu. A quieter, easygoing set would’ve been understandable, but the rest and medicine seemed to bolster Hansard.
Opening the show alone, sitting at a piano, Hansard’s voice sounded strong and resolute, without a hint of wear or tear. For the second song of the night, Hansard proffered a solo acoustic, yet plenty emphatic, take on “This Gift.” The song is from his 2012 Rhythm and Repose album, which features a rather pensive, almost nervous portrait of Hansard. It could easily double as the album cover should he ever actually record under the “Earnest Strum” moniker.
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Joining Hansard onstage for the third tune, the six-member band kicked into “The Moon,” which intriguingly enough, was the softest song of the entire show. But this wasn’t just any backing band. The guitar player seated to Hansard’s left was Javier Mas, an absolute legend who spent many years as sideman for iconic poet troubadour Leonard Cohen. The Spaniard’s 12-string virtuosity lent the night an epic aura from song to song.
Irish saxophonist Michael Buckley also contributed plenty of colorful elements, ensuring each number projected its own personality. A glorious sax-fueled cacophony provided “When your Mind’s Made Up,” one of the popular tunes from Once, with a rather raucous catharsis.
About halfway through the set, Hansard stopped a song to check on a woman in the audience, near the stage. Seems she was having to deal with a bothersome fellow in some way, and the star of the show wasn’t going to let things go on if she wasn’t enjoying herself. That was after he had done a bit of jig-dancing with his acoustic guitar held high over his head, mind you. There’s nothing mellow about that.
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The foreboding tone and ominous guitar work of “The Closing Door,” from the latest record, kept things moving in an attention-commanding manner. As if to channel Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Hansard strapped on a baby blue electric guitar for a fully plugged-in “Didn’t He Ramble.” In all fairness, that song has always been an amp-busting rock song, but here, the band ended it with a brazen slide into the Doors’ “LA Woman,” with Hansard belting out “Mr. Mojo Risin!” to close it out.
The later stage of the set offered a stellar study in opposites that Hansard has been perfecting with this new, less-folky catalog. The extended jams that finished off some of the tunes carried a majestic, cinematic weight not uncommon with post-rock bands such as Explosions in the Sky, for example. But when he wanted to channel his inner Woody Guthrie, as was the case with “Way Back in the Way Back When,” he did so with a stomping sincerity.
Of course, “Falling Slowly” whipped the audience up, with its grand, gradual build into a dramatic climax. An almost a capella “Grace Beneath the Pines” was astounding, as he stepped away from the microphone to test his recently recovered voice for all it was worth. With his hand over his heart, he led the packed, standing-room crowd in the kind of singalong where you could at once hear everyone singing, but, somehow, hear a pin drop if one happened to do so.
But for all of the talk about a being a forlorn balladeer or an adventurous electro-jazz composer or a movie song guy, Hansard is, if nothing else, a dynamic, engaging performer, able to magnetize the stage with whatever it is he may be offering from night to night.