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Sunday, November 18, 2012

In a room with Glen Hansard

Sometimes, something happens, something so fortuitous, that you can't help but think about the existence of fate, or God, or angels - you can't help but think there's something out there looking after you.

I visited Paris recently, mainly to see old friends.  That was the purpose.  Days were spent wandering the city, visiting old haunts, and generally waiting for my friends to finish their work (real life - so inconvenient!).  One particular night over a glass of red, an old friend dropped a bombshell.

"Did you know Glen Hansard is playing a secret gig in Paris tomorrow?", she said.

"Sorry what!", my 'when-in-france' cigarette dropping from my mouth.

"Yeah.  It's on at a bookshop at lunchtime.  You should go."

For those of you who know me, you'll know of my mild obsession with Glen Hansard and his music.  It's raw, there's no veneer, no show biz filter.  There's a desperation in his performance.  A sense of fierce urgency.  As if he's aware he only has a short amount of time to convince you of the importance of his secrets.  As if he's spent a long time struggling to sing in a room without doors or windows, and that in that hour he has with you on stage, someone has punched a hole in one of the walls and allowed him to let his soul spill out.

I last saw him perform at the Sydney Opera House.  The Swell Season were brought to Australia to perform as part of the Sydney Festival.  The three thousand odd seats of the main concert hall sold out months in advance.  About $150 a ticket.  I saw Gough Whitlam there.  Glen and Marketa - supported by The Frames - performed for about two hours, including a soaring desperate performance of "Say it to me now" as well as a rendition of "The Parting Glass" that I'm sure approached something resembling the religious for those that were there ("no regrets - no jealousy - no anger").

"Yeah. You should go", she said.

In the shadows of Notre Dame, the English book shop Shakespeare & Co, an expat institution in Paris, can best be described as... a fire hazard.  A maze of prison-cell-sized rooms,  walls thick with books, wooden beams protruding menacingly from the ceiling.  The doors - which still stand at a dwarfish 18th century height - and the narrow pathways leading from one pile of books to another, double parked with relieved English speaking tourists and wannabe writers on sabbatical from this country or that ("Just staying in a little apartment in the marais... on a scholarship you know... Are you going to Rudolf's party?") give the shop an impression of impenetrability.  It almost seems purposefully dysfunctional - maybe to guard the many secrets within from being uncovered too easily.  Maybe to ensure that only the most worthy make it to their rightful destination.

The secret I sought was at the top of a stooped stair case, sitting in a room in front of a small window that backed onto the Seine.  As he set up, a line of people anxiously jostled for pole position at the door.  The room fit about twenty people.  About fifty were lined up.  As we filed in silently, anxiously, elbows high, finding what space we could on the floor, knees drawn up, pealed against the walls, shoulders awkwardly concertina'd, Glen sat, casually jotting down notes on what looked like an impromptu set list.  I was third last into the room, and squeezed myself down between a couple of Americans who risked knee dislocation to enable a bit of space for me.

"I've got an afternoon voice on me" he apologised.  "Lots of travelling takes a toll on the flesh, but not the soul.  The voice may be broken but it's singing its heart out."

And it did, in a rendition of 'Bird of Sorrow'.  It did, in 'Low Rising' (which I managed to record - apologies for some attempted singing.  He made it sound deceptively easy).

For about forty-five minutes, Glen played and talked, like he was playing in his bedroom to a couple of mates, mucking around with a few odd chords on the guitar, trying out a few new harmonies, even singing one song a cappella.  Just him and his old Takamine guitar - the one with the hole punched through it to let the sound spill out.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

Isn't video a wonderful thing - that we probably take for granted?
I am so glad you got the camera/phone out to immortalise the moment :)
Low Rising is one of my favourites.
Thanks J.