I’m almost certain the first time I saw Damien Dempsey play live was about 18 years ago. At the time I was “working” (bit of a stretch) at a music venue in Temple Bar writing gig reviews in exchange for beer. It was a good deal at the time. One night Dempsey played on a line-up in remembrance of the King Sativa guitarist Damien Clabby. The image my brain stored of that night returns to me every time I see Dempsey play.
Dempsey was at the edge of the stage, wielding his guitar in that way he does where it takes the form of both shield and sword. The ceilings in the place were notoriously low, and Dempsey is a big man. Bigger still was the crowd of mostly men who gathered before him, illuminated by the venue’s cheap lighting, releasing whatever demons they held into the air with fists clenched and tears flowing.
The last time I saw him play was just over a week ago at Other Voices in Dingle, Co Kerry, in the Church of St James. In the intimacy of the room his performance took on a new kind of intensity. A strange, potent energy took hold where it felt that he, the band, and the audience, were walking a high-wire, dicing with an energy that could not be described.
After every song a pocket of air opened up, and in this vacuum, this intake, a silence seized the room, before a collective exhale shuddered out a few seconds later in applause, cheers and gratitude.
After the gig I was at the side of Benners Hotel across the street from the church, dissecting the set with a friend. Dempsey has a huge number of songs to draw from, but for whatever reason there appeared to be a specific emphasis on being on the edge and being pulled back from it. His most powerful songs about addiction, for example, were the tentpoles he chose, raising and stretching a musical canvas over and around us, until we rose and walked back out through the church door, both filled and emptied.
He played Serious, a song that is made up of a sizeable piece of dialogue, where one man contemplates an offer of heroin, and another dials up the peer pressure.
He played Ghosts of Overdoses, a heartbreaking ballad that connects political inaction, classism, the heroin epidemic and gentrification: “Now they drive you from the cities, to make way for all the yuppies / They stood back and didn’t act / Those in power should have been sacked / Decimate the inner cities, move them out, bring in the wealthy.”
And he ended with Party On, a song of boisterous melancholy, beginning with a burst of hedonism (“Doing E, doing speed, doing cocaine / mix it with alcohol and go insane”), before acknowledging the crippling nature of hedonism’s comedown, and a resolution to give it all up, but with a deadline that allows for indulging in the meantime.
Dempsey’s lyrics often pull overground the struggles beneath the surface; historical, urban, emotional.
His skill as a lyricist is multifaceted, but key to its impact is the level of clarity he achieves. He is an incredible social commentator, of course, and he is emotionally attuned to the hardest lessons to learn: the obvious ones.
There is a shared therapy in his words, and a sense of union that calls to mind another great clear thinker, the artist Kae Tempest, who has collaborated with Dempsey, and who writes in their latest book, On Connection, about what the essence of this sort of communication is.
“It wasn’t only about the words themselves, but how the words spoken in sequence at the right depth of feeling became bridges between emotion and experience. Between audience and stage, between venue and crowd. Between the day that everyone in attendance had brought into the room with them, and the prospect of the night to come. When the connection is made, everything is linked and moving towards a moment of mutual feeling, a creative connection that binds the entire room into a unified present.”
Like many people I found last winter incredibly depressing. To avoid tipping over into despair, I would drag myself out of the house, and trudge through the Phoenix Park on icy mornings, listening, on repeat, to the version of It’s All Good from Dempsey’s Live At The Olympia album. The reason this recording is so amazing is how the audience becomes imbued with the song and its sentiment. When the band finishes, the audience keeps going, sing-shouting: “Love yourself today, okay, okay.”
I had tickets to one of Dempsey’s legendary Christmas concerts at Vicar Street before Christmas, annual events that also form the location of the new documentary on Dempsey by Ross Killeen, titled Love Yourself Today, and was imagining how helpful just that song alone would be.
With all live music now in jeopardy, despite all the precautions that venues, promoters and artists took, can we really know what we lose when stages fall silent?
And how can we protect the artists who give so much and are now left with so little? We cannot keep selfishly yearning for their therapeutic powers.
The Government needs to put more money on the table to keep musicians going. We journey to live music to dissolve our despair, and now it’s time to properly care for those who create that art and connection.