Vicar Street, Dublin ***
Homecoming gigs: the prodigals return, heads bowed, with their tails between their legs, or heads raised after making their fortunes. In Glen Hansard’s case, it is perhaps more of the latter than the former, yet there is still a major part of him that is rooted in home and hearth. “You’re better than I expected,” shouted a voice from the upstairs seated area about 20 minutes into the show. Cue laughter. “It’s great to be home,” replied Hansard, distinctly ironic, but warming to the judgment nonetheless.
What we have here is Hansard’s return to Ireland as, ostensibly, a solo artist. From The Frames run of albums to Swell Season’s pairing with Markéta Irglová to Once – the small movie now transformed into an award-winning Broadway show – to this year’s debut solo album, Rhythm and Repose, Hansard has laid his heart on the line and has, occasionally, been derided for it.
It seems, however, that Hansard’s solo work is his most textured and reflective to date. He performs a selection of songs from Rhythm and Repose (including You Will Become, Talking with the Wolves, High Hope, Love Don’t Leave me Waiting, Philander) and within each one reaches for the centre. Accompanied by an 11-piece ensemble, which included strings, brass and a core three-chords-and-the-truth rock band set-up, Hansard was less a controlling conductor than a free-form participant in the music’s ebbs and flows. Taking a leaf out of Van Morrison’s 1970s glory days of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, Hansard frequently delved into that nebulous area of what it is that makes music and performance fuse together and fly.
Over a three-hour gig, attempts to kiss the sky (as the saying goes) didn’t always bear fruit: the solo album tracks were performed beautifully, a version of The Frames’s Star Star provided a particularly poignant highlight, and Swell Season’s When Your Mind’s Made Up made the Johnny-come-lately fanbase happy. At other times, Hansard flailed and fell short of the bullseye. Sometimes, however, what you have in your sights is more important than hitting the target. At least Glen Hansard takes aim.