Didn’t they Ramble, Glen Hansard live in Berlin
The wooden structure of Berlin’s Tempodrom resonates with the earthy tones of Colm Mac Con Iomaire’s violin as the audience are slowly dropping in from a cold late November night. It’s a gentle warm-up for things to come as an energetic Glen Hansard and his eleven (!) piece band take a sparsely lit stage.
Hansard opens the set with Leonard Cohen’s Bird On The Wire before lapsing into three songs from his current studio album “Didn’t He Ramble”. Just To Be The One, the cheerful, dylanesque Winning Streak and My Little Ruin are but a teaser for the record’s impressive musical range which is effectively translated into the live interpretation of its songs. The tempestuous Irish jig finale of McCormack’s Wall coexists peacefully with: groovy big band sounds brought on by Curtis Fowlkes on trombone as well as a saxophone and a trumpet, piano thunderstorms unleashed by Hansard and his tour pianist, orchestral strings, the Van Morrison-inspired Celtic Soul feel of the title track and the Neil Diamond-ish laidbackness of Wedding Ring.
Need to catch your breath already? Looking for the seatbelt? Welcome to Glen’s roller coaster. A tour de force like that could easily make for an exhausting listen, and the record itself has been called overproduced by grumpy critics. Magically, neither rings true. Partly because the various musical galaxies Didn’t He Ramble veers into are held together rock-tight by Hansard’s vocals, which effortlessly oscillate between guttural growl, gritty, weary moan and gentle, soothing whisper. Partly because his and his bands’ connectedness and bubbly joy of performing – equaled only by the shows Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band bring on – is so contagious. Hansard has a knack for engaging listeners like few others, and he and his band expose them to something like the Borg attack of live shows: resistance is futile. These people are on a mission. It’s not for nothing they have a drum that has SAVE A SOUL written on it.
It’s with a dry German “Alles klar?” Hansard addresses his already gasping listeners for the first time six songs into the set. He goes on to deliver the night’s first anecdote over the ensuing giggles. The scene could be taken straight out of John Dos Passos’ “Manhattan Transfer” or NY cult flick “Smoke”: hanging out in a New York bar, Hansard falls for Renata, the bartender – “who was correct about everything”, as he explains, “bar girls have no time for messin’.” As a drunken Hansard and a competitor for Renata’s heart wait each other out one night (“he was probably waiting for me to leave. I was certainly waiting for him to leave. She was waiting for us both to leave. (…) And then he asked ‘are you the guy from “Once” who writes all that romantic shit?’), he unexpectedly finds himself giving his romantic rival a song for their shared love interest.
Be the charming story true or taken from the realm of stage fiction: Renata failed to win its heroine for both men (“he sang it, I played guitar and she kicked us both out”). The experience obviously hasn’t discouraged Hansard from writing romantic (albeit skeptical) songs, which he proves straight away by following up with Wedding Ring, only to leap into more political waters right afterwards by treating the audience to Woody Guthrie’s seldom-heard gem Vigilante Man, not without addressing the fact that the godfather of political folk songs left six pages of lyrics about Donald Trump’s father behind him.
The love and respect for other artists is present throughout the set, and the audience get to watch a bunch of music nerds geeking out on stage and enjoying it. Hansard transitions from the dirty, bluesy groove of his Lowly Deserter into the famously Doors-covered Brecht/Weill piece Alabama Song, honors Prince with an invigorating Kiss cover and sneaks O’Shaugnessys famous words “We are the music makers/And we are the dreamers of dreams” into The Frames’ own Star Star, which is followed by the long-expected Falling Slowly.
And that’s only before the evening gets really emotional as two encores develop much into a Leonard Cohen tribute with Who By Fire, Famous Blue Raincoat and So Long, Marianne. It’s both heartbreaking and soothing how Hansard’s voice can conjure the recently deceased master and bring on an intense, collectively felt moment of mourning and commemoration that leaves nobody untouched. Cohen’s long-time collaborator Javier Mas on lute adds to the overwhelming sense of presence. Together, they create a hard to describe feeling of hope and transcendence. It remains their secret how they manage to do so with grace and dignity, stay on the right side of the thin line between emotional and sentimental and circumnavigate the seas of pathos and cheesiness less subtle and respectful performers might have drowned the magic in.
As the audience – shaken, happy, sad, comforted, all at the same time – shuffle towards the exit, the band reappear in the center of the auditorium and, now unplugged, engage everyone in a rendition of Passing Through, a song made famous by Leonard Cohen. A powerful singalong accompanied by clapping, stomping and finger snapping unfolds, underlining the “we’re in this together” spirit of the night one last time. Glen Hansard’s is a live show at its best, nimbly bridging the distance between performers and listeners, creating one big, warm, buzzing, “sometimes happy, sometimes blue” bubble of music, emotion, and togetherness. Hansard may have come a long way from busking in the streets of Dublin, but it’s where he’s mastered the craft of spellbinding listeners to perfection.