Imagine you are an ocean away from home, have traveled 9,000 miles by van in a few short weeks, and have a single day off before flying halfway around the world. On your lone day of rest, what do you do? If you’re Glen Hansard, you ask a local club owner to open the bar on a Sunday night so you can play for free.
Hansard is the singer and songwriter at the fore of the Frames, a long-tenured Irish folk-rock band that fills large venues back home yet toils in obscurity Stateside. On this night, fresh from an American tour and awaiting a flight to Australia, he played an unscheduled solo show at the Hideout.
When Hansard took to the stage shortly after 11 p.m., barely more than two dozen people sat at tables in the club’s dim back room. They were Hansard’s friends and bandmates, Hideout regulars, a few Irish expats sipping Guinness. From the first quiet figure of the first song, they were rapt.
Onstage with the Frames, Hansard is a happy whirlwind, joking with the crowd between songs and deftly leading his band from reflective folk to buoyant rock. His solo set for this small gathering was a much more relaxed affair: Saying he wished every show could be so low-key, he introduced several songs with long, personal anecdotes. Using only the sparest of parts — a bedraggled Takamine acoustic, an equally well-worn Fender Strat and a harmonica — he mixed material from the most recent Frames disc, For The Birds, with tunes intended for its follow-up, and several covers.
He sang “Lay Me Down” so tenderly he seemed afraid the words might break, then launched into a jackhammer-strummed version of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”. The sounds of his tapping shoe, buzzing strings, and thumping pick filled the spaces he left in Frames faves “What Happens When The Heart Just Stops” and “Headlong”.
Shuffling pages of chords and lyrics, Hansard tried out several new songs, among them “Races” (which, he explained, is “about being sincere, though she thinks you’re an idiot”) and “The Blood” (about vampires, or maybe just bad girlfriends). With Chicagoan Rob Bochnik on lead guitar, he played the Frames oldie “Your Face” and a faithful, emotive cover of Will Oldham’s “New Partner”.
Alone, Hansard picked through the shimmering figures of the Irish standard “Raglan Road”, purring its lyric in a heavy brogue. His closing number, “Listen Girl”, was an unspoken tribute to his late friend Mic Christopher, a songwriter whose death a year ago was unexpected and much too soon.
Together, the simple beauty of Hansard’s songs, his charismatic command of the room, and the intimacy of the setting made for a magical night that proved, if anyone in the tiny crowd had doubted it, that this unsung songwriter and performer is a treasure. In America his star shines softly, but he likes it that way.