The 2016 Liverpool Irish Festival closed to the sounds of a singer from the north side of Dublin tearing down the Phil’s Music Room last Sunday night. The place was packed and the stage was set… but the sold-out hall got more than it bargained for. In more ways than one. By Alan O’Hare.
There’s a couple stood in front of me. Inches apart, heads up and eyes down, they’re taking the music in. Then, just as Damien Dempsey hits a certain note or lyric, they individually (but at the same time) reach out an arm to each other and pull the other one close. This is music.
Communication is the key. It’s what we all go to music for, in the good times and the bad, and it’s what Donaghmede’s Dempsey does better than anyone: make it no sin to be glad you’re alive. Sure, there’s politics in his music – like all the very best music – but this is a singer and songwriter who comes with more strings attached than a Brexit poll. There’s so much more than storm and drive.
Disclaimer: I’m a big fan and a quick Google of my name and Dempsey’s will bring up a handful of reviews from the last decade or so that offer glowing praise. But it’s never been hyperbole – ask any of the two hundred or so acolytes who packed the Philharmonic’s Music Room out on a cold Sunday night for the finale of the Liverpool Irish Festival last weekend.
Dempsey’s music moves you. It gets you moving, too. And makes you think, laugh, cry, love and feel. One minute, you’re ready to take on the world – the next you can’t do anything but surrender and taste the salt dripping into the corner of your mouth as a stray tear slides down the side of your face. It’s a lot more than rabble rousing, too, as tunes like ‘Hold Me’, ‘Chris And Stevie’ and ‘Almighty Love’ prove. These are delicately bruised laments that live in the moment, reveal the past and offer hope for the future. They all have massive chorus’ too – but, in typical Dempsey style, they’re that little bit different to what you might usually expect from a Celtic troubadour: they come at the end of the song. None of this circling back to a refrain nonsense for the man from the north side of Dublin, Dempsey’s songs build and build, piling on the emotion, until a big release comes at the end and you can actually feel the whole room exhale. It really is something to witness and an ethereal actuality that those of us who cherish live music should cling to like our lives depend on it.
Dempsey’s does, it would seem. He sings Shane MacGowan’s ‘A Rainy Night In Soho’ towards the end of a near two hour set and manages to wring more emotion from it than you could possibly imagine. This is a singer who is only as good as his last breath and he does that thing all great artists who have something eating at them do: he takes you on the tightrope with him. If this is a performance, nobody has told Dempsey… his gigs are collaborations between him and his crowd. Sing-a-longs are the order of the night and it’s not just the craic of the Liverpool Irish Festival – the same thing had happened two nights earlier at a packed Trades Club in Hebden Bridge.
The night opened with big audience participation, too, as Ian Prowse skipped on stage as a surprise guest. The Amsterdam man has been a cheerleader for Dempsey for over ten years and often supports him when he crosses the Irish Sea. Starting his set with old band Pele’s ‘A King’s Ransom’ (their debut album, 1992’s ‘Fireworks’, is being re-released and toured for its 25th anniversary in 2017), Prowse hardly paused for breath in a locked and loaded opening flurry. When he did, with an a cappella take on WWI ballad ‘Lest We Forget’, the evening truly began and he never looked back, giving the delighted punters more than their money’s worth.
But you can’t put a price on nights like these – especially when you’re in the presence of a room full of people singing lines and shedding tears to and from songs about famine, suicide, class war and the distance between reality and privilege. Then there are the love songs, too. It’s funny, tears have streamed down my face many times as I’ve stood in various pubs, clubs, arts centres and back rooms watching these two… but Sunday was different. The smile on the face of the man in the picture above reveals it all.
It could light up any room.
Liverpool Irish Festival
19-29 October 2017
Pic by John Johnson