Damien Dempsey: The poet laureate of Ireland’s forgotten
I’m very grateful that a version of this review appeared on the brilliant Liverpool music website Get Into This. They are great supporters of live music and music writing in the city.
DAMIEN Dempsey is a big, bruising boxer with the beautiful heart of a poet.
He’s a modern bard who links the historic ballad tradition in Irish folk music to a youth culture equally at home with hip-hop, reggae and rave.
He is a genuine one-of-a-kind: a sympathetic, ruggedly sentimental singer songwriter who has managed to make folk music relevant again in an Ireland ravaged by the negative aspects of globalization and corporate greed.
On Sunday evening in the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Rooms, amid the dancing bodies and the throaty communal football chants of “Damo! Damo! Damo!”, he was the perfect closing act for the 2016 Liverpool Irish Festival.
It was fitting he was again supported by his great friend Ian Prowse, a singer songwriter with an admirable back catalogue, and who is a decorated scholar of Irish history and culture.
Prowse is a real showman and his back catalogue was showcased in a well measured support slot that included the brilliant ‘I Did it for Love’, ‘Does this Train Stop on Merseyside’, and ‘Raid the Palace’ which brought his first band Pele to prominence 25 years ago.
He also produced another beautiful vocal-only version of the WWI-protest song ‘Lest We Forget’.
Dempsey is the purest kind of soul singer, entirely living within his own songs about Irish history, love and the battles with depression and drugs that blight working class Ireland.
He is evocative and real, beating his chest in the middle of songs exhorting you to feel the pain and love he feels, urging you to escape the humdrum and run of the mill.
There were songs from his recent 1916 Easter Rising commemoration album, No Force on Earth, including the Ewan MacColl-influenced ‘The Island’, ‘James Connolly’ and ‘Aunt Jenny’, about a family member who fought for freedom 100 years ago.
Amid these songs we got greatest hits from the greatest singer working today: ‘Sing All Our Cares Away’ a song of addiction and escape, ‘Canadian Geese’ about young council estate fellas seeking the freedom of the countryside and the coast and ‘Busting Out of Here’ an anthem of escaping the hardships of life.
Folk music used to be about the hardships of the country or the coast, of working people in mines, on farms or fishing boats. Now the marginalised are the council estate working class shafted by banks and governments. Damien Dempsey is their poet laureate.
The personal is always political with Dempsey and ‘Almighty Love’ remains a beautiful testament to the women and men who have fought for equality globally. It was followed by the brilliant vocal performance of ‘Maasai’, his African-inflected song about the spirituality of ancient tribes.
At the midpoint of the set there was a perfect encapsulation of the power of Dempsey’s unashamedly emotive music when the middle-aged couple in front of us cuddled during his bruised love song ‘Hold Me’. This sight had the potential to produce tears, rest assured they would come soon enough.
As befits the boxer he was, Dempsey is capable of landing a perfect blow that can put you on your arse emotionally at any time, and when he threw in the anti-colonial song/ rap ‘Colony’, there were tears in the house. For anyone else, its theatre and drama would be a closer or an encore, not Damo.
He finished with songs that provided the very essence of his heart-tugging Celtic folk: the New York emigration song, ‘Apple of My Eye’, Shane Magowan’s peerless ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, and ‘Party On’ which might just be the best song ever written about the emotional effects of doing drugs.
His final salvo was pure crowd pleasing greatest hits and showcased his commitment to positivity and loving yourself. As the man said himself: “Look in the mirror and give yourself a big kiss.”
‘Seize the Day’ is an anthem of giving life a lash and regretting nothing, ‘Negative Vibes’ is about getting rid of the awful shite of consumerism and not letting depression or the perils of modern life drag you down.
In an Ireland where suicide is a major killer of young men, Dempsey’s music is a totemic tonic for the troops.
His knockout punch remains ‘It’s All Good’, pulled out for the encore and a hymn to ignoring the bollocks and being yourself. Long after he headed off stage we all sang: “Love yourself today, ok, ok/ Love yourself today, ok, ok.”
With an acoustic guitar, an authentic, evocative voice and a heart full of hope and compassion, Damo tugs the heartstrings like no-one else.
The Island/ Sing All Our Cares Away/ Canadian Geese/ Aunt Jenny/ Bustin Out of Here/ Almighty Love/ Maasai/ Schooldays Over/ Hold Me/ Chris and Stevie/ Your Pretty Smile/ James Connolly/ Colony/ Apple of My Eye/ Rainy Night in Soho/ Party On/ Seize the Day/ Negative Vibes/ It’s All Good