By Carter Shelter, Contributing Writer
The last time I saw Glen Hansard, he took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival armed with nothing but his acoustic guitar and a handful of guests. He delivered a joyous, communal performance that seemed to embody the mentality at the heart of folk music. What he brought to the stage at Carnegie Hall last Wednesday was at once similar and wildly different.
At Newport, there was looseness and a sense that Hansard was there for the people, to give them a chance to sing. At Carnegie, though, the people were there for him, and he arrived ready to prove that he was worthy of playing the prestigious and historical venue. To say that he accomplished his goal would be an understatement. The performance was a near 3-hour master class from one of this century’s greatest troubadours and most underrated songwriters combining storytelling, passion, politics and tradition into a truly stunning display.
Backed by a 6-piece band that featured a trio of string players (and no drummer), Hansard began the show with a handful of songs from his two solo albums and immediately had the entire audience in the palm of his hand. That grasp never loosened throughout the evening. The energy in the room seemed to rise and fall with the push and pull of the music.
After a cacophonous cascading piano line at the end of “My Little Ruin,” Hansard seamlessly transitioned into a powerhouse performance of “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” As the “Once” soundtrack piece’s steady crescendo reached its peak, its sheer force alone seemed as though it might lift the audience from their seats. As it turned out, this wouldn’t be the only show-stopping moment of the night. An impassioned and heartbreaking performance of “Bird of Sorrow” left many with tears in their eyes as Hansard’s cries of “I’m hangin’ on” reverberated through the hall. A rendition of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” dedicated to his primary school headmaster who encouraged Hansard to follow music instead of academia, and who was in the audience that night, saw his voice deftly moving between tender and powerful and ended with a wall of fuzzed-out, feedback laden guitar amid whoops, hollers and rapturous applause from the audience.
At times the show felt like one massive tribute to the relationships and experiences that have inspired Hansard throughout his life. Whether it was a shout-out to Bernie Sanders who “won more than he realizes” during “Winning Streak,” a humorous story about his father’s love of working and drinking preceding “Paying My Way,” or his saddening tale of seeing masses of immigrants walking down highways while he was touring eastern Europe, the audience paid rapt attention to each word and every story. It felt as if his anecdotes might hold some truth about life, or at least open up new layers to the songs.
Hansard also dedicated a significant portion of the performance to his Irish heritage. In addition to the Van Morrison cover, he powered through the angry barroom stomp of “Lowly Deserter,” his ode to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Later, he brought out Irish poet Paul Muldoon for a performance of his song “Nothing On You,” and during his encore brought out fiddler John Sheahan, a founding member of The Dubliners, for a series of songs, including Hansard’s own “McCormack’s Wall” and a show-closing of the traditional “Auld Triangle,” which for a short time transported the Midtown venue to the Emerald Isle.
The biggest surprise of the evening came at the close of the main set though, as Hansard brought out his musical partner from “Once” and the Swell Season, Marketa Irglova, for a truly special and moving rendition of the pair’s “Falling Slowly.” The two returned to the stage alone to kick off the encore with a swelling, emotional performance of “This Gift.” If the rest of the show wasn’t enough to convince the audience that it was a special evening, Marketa’s inclusion made it clear. The chemistry between her and Hansard is still electric. When their voices would fall to just above a whisper, the crowd would listen in silence, hanging onto every note, and when they rose, they rose together, swirling around each other in beautiful harmony. In a show with surprise guests and memorable performances, their duets stood out as examples of music at the height of its power and more than earned Glen Hansard his spot in the pantheon of the greats who have graced the stage of one of the country’s most remarkable music halls.