Some songwriters enjoy special relationships with this city. Damien Dempsey is one. Over the last decade or so, the big Irishman has played to packed houses all over Liverpool and he’s back this summer to play at the inaugural Feis at the Pier Head. First, though, he’s in Warrington this weekend to play us ‘The Great Irish Songbook’. By Alan O’Hare.
I’ve run out of words to describe Damien Dempsey. Over the last decade or so, I’ve been to dozens of the folk star’s gigs and reviewed a lot of them. He’s never let me down. Never. It’s extraordinary, that.
It doesn’t matter if it’s an intimate acoustic gig at an arts club, a full-band riot in Dublin or a good old sing-song in a backstreet pub, Dempsey sings like his life depends on it… and chooses songs that live in the distance between the old and new world. Often, they’re his own songs, but this week in Warrington, Morrissey’s favourite living Irishman will be singing tunes from the great Irish songbook. He’s done it before, following the release of ‘The Rocky Road’ covers album in 2008, and here we are again ten years later ready to revisit those famous ballads and broadsides.
“I grew up with The Dubliners, that was the music I listened to. They were just massive,” he says. “I’ve got a responsibility to pass on songs. They were passed on to me and I have to pass them on to younger people.” It’s refreshing to hear, but that’s Dempsey all over: he refreshes parts of you that other singers cannot reach. Ego goes out of the picture when he sings and music flows like light. Hyperbole? Have a listen to this little lot…
Start here. Sure, Dempsey can break your heart with a love song or make you smile with a pop tune, but this is what he does best… unflinching and walking unafraid into the truth.
‘Apple Of My Eye’
“New York! New York! I’m coming… “ Dempsey sings for every Irish émigré, with eyes wide open and full of wonder. Gorgeous melody, too.
‘It’s All Good’
One of the most uplifting songs you’re ever likely to hear and a vocal as wide as O’Connell Street. Stay tuned for the glorious coda, too, he does those better than most…
‘Sing All Our Cares Away’
The very best songs make you feel happy and sad at the same time. Apparently, there’s a tribe who live below the equator somewhere who don’t understand how music can make people feel sad… tunes, to the members of said tribe, are work songs to keep you happy. I love that. But I can’t imagine life without this beautiful ballad.
‘Your Pretty Smile’
See, I told you, Dempsey can play pop. From 2007’s ‘To Hell Or Barbados’, ‘Your Pretty Smile’ has lightened up any room I’ve heard it sung in over the last decade.
‘A Rainy Night In Soho’
One of the songs that should dominate this weekend’s gig in Warrington, as Dempsey’s ‘The Great Irish Songbook’ tour is subtitled ‘… including the songs of The Pogues and The Dubliners’. I used to think Shane MacGowan’s songs were off-limits for anybody to have a crack at, until Damo’ opened the vein and located the same ache.
‘Chris And Stevie’
“What I would give to see you smiling back at me / and what I wouldn’t do for one last laugh with you… “ Dempsey sings with more empathy than anyone. Whatever he channels on this devastating lament, he turns the ether into something tangible.
We’re right up-to-date now, with the closing track of 2017’s ‘Soulsun’. In truth, that record was the first time the Donaghmede artist failed to kiss the sky, but the closing track hit the heights and then some. Startlingly original and ready to take flight. See you at Parr Hall…
‘The Great Irish Songbook’
Sunday, March 18th 2018, 8pm
Parr Hall, Warrington
Pic by John Johnson