The Frames w/ Mark Geary (Monday, February 7th, 2005, 400 Bar, Minneapolis)
By Steve McPherson
A few weeks later, I was in Roadrunner Records when I noticed a new Frames release—Burn the Maps—which I promptly picked up and mentioned in passing on my blog. My friend and HowWasTheShow editor David de Young promptly filled me in on the Frames (giants in Ireland, best live show he’s ever seen, great guys) and tells me about their upcoming show at the 400. I’m so there.
And then I hear rumblings. The New York Times has a video review of their
album on their website, Salon.com’s music critic-in-chief breaks
from the hipster façade to proclaim their show in NYC “one
of the most purely enjoyable, uncomplicatedly gratifying rock shows [he’d]
seen in a long time.”
Pressed close against the stage (something I haven’t felt like doing for a long time), I awaited the Frames with a little concern. Could they live up to it? I mean, they’re just a band, right? Even if their singer was in ‘The Commitments’ (true story), the Frames were going to have to deliver and deliver big.
Taking the stage, it was confirmed that their violinist Colm MacConIomaire was not present, apparently at home with his wife and newborn child, but they did bring along a third guitarist, who had comments like “THINK!” and “HELP!” Sharpied on his forearms. Interesting. After tiptoeing through taut opener “A Caution to the Birds,”, I got a taste of singer/guitarist Glen Hansard’s winning charm as he prefaced one of the best songs from their new album (‘Keepsake’) by explaining that the song is about walking out of your house in the morning, picking up the morning paper, taking a book of matches, lighting the paper on fire, throwing it into your house, closing the door, locking the door, breaking the key off in the lock, and giving the broken key to the first girl you see. As Thomas Bartlett observed on Salon.com, Glen is so humble that the overtly emotional songs never come across as whiny or melodramatic. Although I’m inclined to agree with Bartlett that the Frames live show is probably better off without MacConIomaire after listening to their live CD Setlist; I can’t put it any better than he did: “String sections = good (some of the time); single violins = bad (nearly all the time).” I know that the fiddle is an integral part of Irish music, but as someone who doesn’t listen to an awful lot of Irish music, it can come across to me as just too sentimental.
Which is a real danger all the time with the Frames. But miraculously they almost always avoid the pitfalls of sappiness that seem built into their songs. Any other band leading the crowd in a whistle-along would not only be disastrous, but lame, yet the Frames make it work. Hansard is a consummate frontman, and I’ve been relating his anecdotes to my friends for the past two days. From graciously deflecting song requests, to making lyric-forgetting an art-form, to quoting Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Lilac Wine,’ Hansard makes you feel like every little bit is just for you, and this is obviously a large part of why they’re a giant success in their home country; a lot of bands low down on the totem pole act like the audience isn’t even there, and higher up, a lot of really successful acts get the audience into it, but the Frames belong at the upper echelon of bands that make going along with them a foregone conclusion. You can bet they’re just as comfortable playing to 10,000 people as they are playing to 10, and that is a wicked hard thing to do.
As for the songs themselves (that is, the bits that fell between the funny talking bits), live performance much improved the sometimes too subdued production of their new long-player. ‘Burn the Maps’ is definitely subtle and intricate, but sometimes too much for its own good, with a very brittle drum sound and overly harsh guitars, the exception being hit-single-to-be ‘Fake,’ which, oddly, live, came across as almost too rote and not nearly as powerful as some of the slower-burners like ‘Sideways Down,’ ‘Finally,’ and ‘Keepsake.’ In this way, they don’t remind me so much of U2, which is who they usually get compared to (and no, they don’t wear green hats and eat Lucky Charms, thank you very much, St Patrick’s Day), but local masters of the slow build, Love-cars. This stands in marked contrast to their earlier material, which is much simpler and direct, but certainly no less appealing. Much like Geary before them, it seems difficult to describe the Frames as anything other than what they are, which is simply an excellent rock band. Shades of the Wedding Present, perhaps a little bit of the Hunters and Collectors, but mostly a band that, especially live, is much more than the sum of its parts. If they continue on the path that’s being laid out by the New York Times and Salon and pushers like David de Young, within the next year they’ll be back and playing a much larger venue, so I greatly appreciated the opportunity to catch stadium-sized rock in a handy bar-sized container, even if it was the 400 Bar ($5 Guinness for an Irish bill! What a treat!)
Under the weight of almost unbearable expectations, the Frames delivered the goods, putting on one of the best rock shows I’ve seen in recent memory and firmly establishing them at the top of the heap so far this year. Their albums are slowly growing on me, particularly the simple charms of For the Birds, which I’d recommend over Burn the Maps as a place to start.
On a final note, the definitive moment of the evening came for me when Hansard expressed his bewilderment over the bad reception of Kings Of Leon’s new album. See, the hype around KoL is not the organic variety: it’s bona fide cover of the Rolling Stone, and music critics have a nose for that stuff, even when it surrounds a genuinely good album like Aha Shake Heartbreak. The lovely thing about Glen Hansard is that he seems immune to this kind of judgment and it’s probably exactly that quality that lets him get away with making such heart-on-the-sleeve, lighters-aloft rock and roll without any twinge of conscience.
Steve McPherson is steve.mcpherson[at]howwastheshow.com