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The Frames w/ Mark Geary (Monday, February 7th, 2005, 400 Bar, Minneapolis)

By Steve McPherson

Perhaps you’re familiar with the way hype—real, genuine hype—builds around a band. I don’t mean the “cover of the Rolling Stone” variety, but organic, almost grassroots buzz that you hear with your ear to the ground. I first heard about the Frames a few months ago in a conversation between my friends Bill Caperton and Martin Devaney (Devaney opened for the Frames on their first 400 Bar appearance in 2002); it was just a comment about how amazing they were, but I took note because Martin and Bill have their wheelhouses of musical taste in fairly different areas that occasionally cross, usually in the realm of excellent songwriting.

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.”

So how do I, as a responsible and objective music journalist (right, finding the Loch Ness Monster would be easier than finding one of those), respond to the weight of hype that I have personally already received? I attend the Frames live show and first listen to Mark Geary.

Mark Geary at the 400 Bar - Photo by Steve McPherson

MARK GEARY

I had no clue who Geary was going into this concert, so his set was a great surprise. Armed with only a Martin guitar, some aggressive strumming, and his Irish charm, Geary won the crowd, which included some genuine and unexpected fans calling out requests for songs like ‘Adam & Eve’ and ‘Christmas Biscuits,’ both of which he honored. I find it’s often hard to characterize the sound of a man singing with an acoustic guitar as something other than exactly what it is, but if I had to draw parallels, I’d say David Gray’s quieter moments showed up, along with Damien Rice minus the histrionics, and a heaping helping of Gaelic-inflected stage banter. Beyond his winning songs, this was Geary’s real gift for performing; he related anecdotes about growing up with seven brothers and sisters (“My dad worked at the contraceptive factory, but he never brought his work home with him”), and recorded the crowd’s applause onto a tiny digital recorder for—according to him—replay the next morning to get him out of bed. (The Marky Motivator, he called it.) Afterwards, I picked up his debut CD 33 1/3 Grand Street, which adds drum and bass tastefully to the mix and features several lovely songs, including closer ‘Here’s to You,’ which you may want to put on repeat and make out to. Just a suggestion.

THE FRAMES

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.

Glen Hansard at the 400 - Photo by Steve McPherson (see more photos by Steve from this show here.)

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.

Glen Hansard

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


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