Glen Hansard, Richard Thompson
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham
Friday, Nov. 27, 2015

Richard Thompson first captivated me 25 years ago at the Newport Folk Festival. I’d heard his music before, but seeing him on his own with just a guitar and his voice provided a jolt of visceral excitement that wasn’t always there on record. Many people play guitar, but Richard Thompson gets it to do his bidding. Singing with precise diction from the gut, playing strong rhythm as well as a lattice of lead on top of it, Thompson enacts a performance of pure mastery with a touch of pure athleticism.

I saw a dozen or so other acts that weekend, but it was Thompson who made an indelible impression. I was excited to hear him again last week in Durham. But truth be told, I was also perplexed to the point of incredulity that he was merely the opening act for headliner Glen Hansard.

I’d read Hansard’s name recently, though I wasn’t positive how to pronounce it. I learned that Hansard made his film debut in The Commitments, led an offbeat folk group and won a “best song” Tony for the musical Once. I took a quick dip into Hansard’s top three songs on Spotify (including “Falling Slowly,” from Once, which has been streamed 20 million-plus times), and I came away with a reinforced sense that Richard Thompson was being billed below a performer trading in the same folk-rock idiom that Thompson helped invent with Fairport Convention. To my ears anyway, he was doing it far less distinctively.

Still, my ears were open to a reassessment. Thompson would no doubt leave me in a great mood. Perhaps Hansard’s music in a live setting hit me in the same way as the night’s opening act had floored me back at Newport.

Thompson did not disappoint. His playing remains as fiery as ever—energetic and precise, barbed yet effortlessly flowing. Thompson revels in dark places, but he’s never maudlin, never overwrought, even in songs that abide in a zone of interpersonal desolation. He introduced a new number, “Josephine,” as “the most depressing” tune on his newest record, Still, and finished with the quietly devastating “I Misunderstood” (“another of my pathetic little folk songs”). In between there was infidelity on the high seas, on the rousing sing-along shanty “Johnny’s Far Away.” And, of course, there was “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Something like an English ballad crossed with a grown-up teen-tragedy song, it’s a staple of virtually every set Thompson plays these days. I was grateful for DPAC’s deep darkness, which enabled me to choke up in comfortable anonymity.

At intermission, people around me marveled at Thompson’s virtuosity. My sense was that it had been a bonus for a good portion of the audience, several members of which said they’d first encountered Hansard via the Broadway show. Asked to describe the singer’s appeal, one woman told me Glen has “some irresistible Irish juju.” As I returned to my seat, I heard one of my neighbors state, with palpable enthusiasm, “It’s almost Glen time.” And soon it was.

Thompson comes off like the world’s greatest busker; meanwhile, Hansard, who once was one, now leads a nine-piece ensemble. On the opening number, “Grace Beneath the Pines,” Hansard sang sans microphone for what might have been dramatic effect. Showing off his righteous gospel-and-R&B-inflected rasp, and his lyrical tendency toward dramatic if easily digestible imagery, it set the tone. As it ended, an Irishman behind me bellowed, for the first of several times that evening, “Gorgeous!” (rhymes with “barges!”). As the set continued, this gent’s enthusiasm waxed as mine waned. ,,,,

The second song, “Winning Hand,” reinforced my sense that Hansard is purveying an accessible take on music that has been done with greater verve and originality by others. That is not to say that what he does isn’t accomplished and pleasing and presented with passion. It is. But what a song like “Winning Hand” calls to mind is a tradition of songs exemplified by John Martyn’s “May You Never” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,”—call them “litanies of good wishes” songs. Next to them, “Winning Hand” just seemed to lack bite.

Throughout the 20-song set, the players offered solid support, hitting their marks whether by means of a flugelhorn solo or drum mallets or a cello line. They never overshadowed the man at center stage. It was all very tasteful, and for me, a little bit slick and soft-rock-y. The audience, on the other hand, seemed to love it all.

Hansard’s personal appeal, after all, is easy to identify. He’s a genial, homespun presence who’s happy to acknowledge his musical forebears. He paid homage to Van Morrison with an enticing version of “Astral Weeks” and expressed appropriate appreciation for the legendary “special guest” opening up for him on his current tour. He even admitted to nicking Thompson’s chords for “Say It to Me Now,” the song with which he would end his set.

The move was appropriately reverent.