"A neighbour in the crowd sums it up best: "Unfuckingbelievable!"."
As we're shown to our seats, that distinctive Irish tin whistle emanates from the sound system to transport us directly to The Emerald Isle. Shane Howard graces the stage in trio mode, opening with Deeper South. They may look like a bunch of extras from a Ned Kelly film up there, but we're riveted from the very first fiddle stroke. A bass drum skin reading "Save A Soul..." (unfortunately can't read the bottom bit) faces out toward the audience for this evening's entirety. A cluster of smoke morphs into assorted nestling shapes, illuminated in the crossfire of two intersecting spotlights.
You're The Love, a song Howard tells us he co-wrote with Russ Kunkel during the Carole King tour, inspires. After telling us Neil Young said, "Rust Never Sleeps", Howard deals the plucky Everything Is Rusted - and the crowd resembles a sea of nodding dogs. A never-performed-live-before song is premiered, it's about the plight of the hooded plover and sharpens our awareness. Then a drummer and bass player arrive on stage to make five just in time for an explosive version of one of our unofficial Australian anthems, Goanna's Solid Rock (with a hillbilly twist). "All power to Glen and his powerful spirit," Howard praises of tonight's headliner.
Sequins shimmer in the darkness as Glen Hansard's ten-piece backing band take their positions (the sparkles belong to the string trio). To say the audience is completely captivated would be a gross understatement. Each song's arrangement swells with dynamic variation and we're left gasping after Romy's discombobulated piano solo that closes My Little Ruin. There's so much power in Hansard's vocal, it's an equally effective instrument whether tender or raucous, which is perfectly demonstrated via When Your Mind's Made Up. Hansard tells us his dad was labelled 'Jesus' down at his local, The Ramble Inn, because he wanted to make everyone feel as good as him and would bring all manner of "druncles" (drunk dudes who weren't really uncles) back to their family home. Romy's vocal harmonies are like an exquisite whisper on the breeze.
The tales behind Hansard's songs are almost as enchanting as the songs themselves and we fall in love with the characters therein (see: Renata). Lighting design throughout gently highlights incoming instrumental parts, which is subtle but essential to this show's atmosphere. Trombonist Curtis Folkes takes a winning verse on Wedding Ring. Hansard noticeably places his bandmates directly under the spotlight, basking in their talent. While visiting Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Hansard tells us he was struck by the lyrics to Vigilante Man. He performs a version of this song tonight, altering lyrics to throw shade at Trump. A punter sneezes while Hansard performs McCormack's Wall solo on piano. "Bless you," Hansard acknowledges, mid-song.
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The pace during double bassist Joe Doyle and Hansard's strum-off to close out Pearl Jam's Smile threatens to cause sparks. Star Star is dedicated to "the spirit of Gene Wilder" and Pure Imagination (from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory) is spliced in - the string trio expertly supplying the eerie main melody before Hansard incorporates a terrifying monologue that takes us hurtling down the chocolate river and through a dark tunnel. The Once song (aka Falling Slowly) was always gonna be a set highlight.
To commence the encore, Hansard performs Stay The Road solo and unplugged, standing on the very edge of the stage and peering out into the audience while lovingly caressing his acoustic. Melanie Horsnell is invited to the stage and sings Hansard's In These Arms, during which Hansard quietly skulks around behind her to find a stage-left mic and supplies backing vocals. Howard returns to the stage to perform Come Down Moses (The Frames' Colm Mac Con Iomaire and Doyle play on the recorded version of this song), after a plea for us to please make a donation to the Save The Children - Syria Appeal. The brass trio are perfectly utilised during Didn't He Ramble. Hansard clearly loves Melbourne, telling us he was delighted to locate AC/DC Lane. After Hansard reveals his confirmation name is Angus (yep, a nod to Angus Young), we score a rambunctious version of AC/DC's Down Payment Blues, for which Hansard conducts his visibly thrilled bandmates. All musicians spread across the front of the stage, house lights remain on and we're all upstanding as Hansard and co share their Song Of Good Hope, unplugged. The stage lights dim to ensure there's no further songs; they've definitely played way overtime.
A neighbour in the crowd sums it up best: "Unfuckingbelievable!" Hansard isn't cool by any stretch of the imagination (yeah, relax, he'd wholeheartedly agree), but he's genuine, heartfelt and a tuning rod for our souls.