Covers have always been a part of Glen Hansard’s musical fabric. Earning his salt as a performer busking in the streets of Dublin, he had to build a solid repertoire of cover songs from artists like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley to make some money. Through his two decade tenure with The Frames, his stint performing with Marketa Irglova as The Swell Season, and now his burgeoning solo career, the covers have never left his bag of tricks, and have continued to be a staple of his live set. With Drive All Night, the decision to cover and name the EP after a track from Bruce Springsteen’s The River from 1980 should come as no surprise.
Though he’s often compared to Van Morrison, Hansard is equally indebted to Springsteen, with his passionate, often multi-hour concerts. On recent tours, he’s even added a horn section to his band, making the Frames a de facto E Street Band. Debuting while on tour with the Swell Season in 2010, this cover of “Drive All Night” has found its way into many of Hansard’s setlists, often as a tribute to the late E Street Band’s saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who passed away in 2011. In 2013, Hansard was even invited by The Boss himself to perform the song at a gig in Kilkenny, Ireland. With the EP’s opener and title track, Hansard recruits friend and former tourmate Eddie Vedder for backup vocals and Clemons’ nephew Jake to play saxophone. The cover updates the original’s composition, adding acoustic guitars, omitting the ’80s synths, and giving Jake Clemons the opportunity for an emotional sax solo. Hansard’s room-filling vocals are accompanied by Vedder’s understated harmonies, the Pearl Jam frontman taking a backseat. Towards the end of the song, Hansard soulfully coos, “baby, can you feel it?” from “Feels Like Rain”, a John Hiatt track off his classic Slow Turning album. Hansard’s proclivity to give other artists’ songs fresh life barrels through most clearly with this rendition.
On “Pennies In The Fountain”, Hansard soberly laments a failed relationship over gloomy pianos. “You moved on and I stayed the same,” he sings. “I was trailing from the start.” The highlight of the EP, though, is “Renata”. In the track, Hansard takes on the perspective of Michael, the title woman’s still-lovesick ex-boyfriend, who had asked him to write the song before a charity gig at a bar in New York City. Using the same chord progression as The Frames’ standout “What Happens When The Heart Just Stops”, “Renata” feels like a defiant answer to the For The Birds cut. Hansard asks, “Am I a fool for hanging on to you?/ Make up your mind, I’ll be here when you do.” His Once co-star and Swell Season counterpart Marketa Irglova provides pitch perfect backing vocals, reminding why their collaborations made them such a formidable duo. It’s on “Renata” that Hansard gives his best Van Morrison impression, channeling “Caravan” with his smooth “na na na na”s simmering over its climax.
Closer “Step Out Of The Shadows” is completely a cappella, leaving Hansard’s pipes to stand alone in the stark track. Feeling like a traditional folk spiritual, he sings about the usual suspects of silent rivers, stepping out to sea, and restless winds blowing. Though his vocals largely pull it off, there’s an emptiness to the track, both lyrically and musically, that makes it feel unfinished and not entirely affecting. While it’s not poor, the song proves that Hansard works best when he’s backed by The Frames, or even just his old, beat up acoustic guitar.
Part of the proceeds from Drive All Night goes to Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that’s working to rejuvenate music education programs in public schools. It’s fitting that since his 2012 solo debut, Rhythm and Repose, Hansard has been involved in loads of charitable endeavors, singing songs and spreading the good vibes wherever he goes. On Drive All Night, Hansard is content with his new, more subdued sound crafted on that debut. It’s not as cathartic or intense as The Frames, but the songs and his voice are still strong. This EP isn’t the best starting point for Hansard’s music, but for fans of Rhythm And Repose, it’s a welcome followup.
Essential Tracks: “Drive All Night”, “Renata”