Sydney Morning Herald NOVEMBER 15, 2003 - by Bruce Elder


Irish band The Frames leave audiences crying for more, writes Bruce Elder.

Imagine a situation where your low-key, relatively unknown band is playing a gig in London and there, right in the front row, is Brian Eno, founding member of Roxy Music, acclaimed electronic installation artist, producer of most of U2's legendary albums and the father of modern ambient music - and he's weeping.

Glen Hansard, the leader, singer, songwriter and guitarist with Irish group the Frames, tells this story with more than a hint of embarrassment. It must be pretty hard trying to sing and perform while someone in the front row is blubbering away. "To be standing on stage and have Brian Eno standing right in front of you looking at the band with tears in his eyes was the weirdest experience. Afterwards he told me, 'I was crying in Star Star. For me, that was a huge validation."

Eno would later say that The Frames concert was the best live performance he had seen in five years. It was a big call but it was also a flawless judgement if the group's live album, Set List, is any indication of the power of their onstage presence.

Set List is, along with James Brown's Live At The Apollo, Bob Marley and the Wailers' Live! and a few other rarities, one of those albums in which the magic of live performance is captured perfectly. At one point Hansard, listening to the audience singing along to the beautiful Lay Me Down, spontaneously lets out a "Wow!" as though he, too, is overwhelmed.

As Hansard explains: "Our gigs are based on mutual trust. If everyone in the band is working together and the audience is good then there's a third element invited into the gig and that's magic and spontaneity."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Frames is that, in an era when popular music has become a manufactured product, this group has returned to all the reasons that make rock music so special and so important.

Their history is long and complex. Hansard started playing guitar in pub bands when he was thirteen. In the early '90s he had two lucky breaks when he was invited to play the guitarist, Outspan Foster, in Alan Parker's film of Roddy Doyle's novel The Commitments and, around the same time, his newly formed band The Frames were signed by Chris Blackwell to Island Records. These breaks proved less than life-changing. Blackwell signed the band the day he sold Island Records and touring, with posters loudly declaring "featuring Glen Hansard from The Commitments", built false audience expectations and didn't allow the band to develop.

Back in Dublin busking, Hansard was persuaded that true independence was a sensible career option. "We were all buskers," Hansard says. "Every Saturday we'd have an audience who would gather and we'd play for a few hours and then we'd go and have a drink. That audience stayed with us.

"We were advised, after we had been dropped by Island, that we didn't need a record company to make a record. The plan was to play to our audience and to raise the money for recording from that audience. We were advised to tell our audience what we needed the money for: we told them we were playing seven nights in this tiny pub because we need to make a record and we need this much money to do it. The place was packed every night."

The result is that, without major record company support, they have reached a point where they are bigger than U2, certainly as a live band, in Ireland. Although at one time The Frames and U2 shared a record company, Hansard has no great love for Ireland's most successful band. "I don't think U2 have ever really communicated with other Irish bands. They never took an Irish band on the road. They never supported Irish bands in the press. I respect them and I like them as a band but I don't feel any personal allegiance. U2 are like the Catholic Church in Ireland. They're so fucking big that we both fear them and respect them. You daren't say anything wrong about them or you'll go straight to hell."

It was therefore a powerful comment on the emerging status of The Frames that last year's readers' poll in the Irish music magazine Hot Press named The Frames the country's best live act. Hansard notes that, "It was the people's poll and the good thing was that Bono, in an awards ceremony, said, 'I want to say tonight that we know who The Frames are and we respect them.' That was the first time he had ever mentioned our name."

If they keep writing, recording and performing as well as they did when they made Set List, then Bono will be having lots more to say about The Frames.