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Miles Hunt on Damien Dempsey

21 February 05 words: Miles Hunt

If you're fortunate, you'll find an artist, during your lifetime, who tunes into your thoughts and experiences and sings about them...

My introduction to Damien Dempsey's music couldn't have been any more perfect. We've all fallen in love with a record at some point in our lives, not entirely because of the music, but because of where we were and, perhaps more importantly, who we were with on that first occasion that we heard it.

Maybe, if you're very fortunate, you'll find an artist, during your lifetime, that will somehow manage to tune into your thoughts and experiences and sing about them for you. Sometimes to confirm what you're already feeling and on other occasions, put into words and music matters that have caused you sleepless nights and worse. Damien Dempsey has achieved all of the above in this writers life.

Back in January 2002, I was rehearsing my solo band for a UK tour. Michael Ferentino, the band's guitarist and our drummer Andres Karu were in London with me. Normally they are both residents of the United States. Rehearsals were going well and each evening, after a hard day's graft, we sort out The Good Times. On one such evening my manager, David Jaymes, invited us over to West London for a night of carousing. Cara Dylan and Damien Dempsey, two young Irish singers were also in town. They were working with another of Dave's artists, John Reynolds. Reynolds is a Saint of a man. He has a studio in his West London home and with arms wide open he is often to be found devoting his talents to nurturing and encouraging artists that have yet to see all that he has seen.

In John's kitchen, come dining area, there is a huge oak table that could seat a medium sized Male Voice Choir and, knowing Reynolds, at one time or another it probably has done. When I arrived at John's place, accompanied by my colonial cousins, it seemed liked we'd missed half the night, as the assembled gang were already passing the guitar around this sturdy witness of a table, swapping songs and stories as the instrument made good it's journey.

Ferentino, always at the ready, treated us to one of his deliciously broken hearted pieces. I drunkenly fumbled my way through something half finished before giving into the bullying that came in the shape of, "C'mon Milo, give us Size Of A Cow!". Next up, Cara Dylan brought angels to the table, a more beautiful voice I don't know when I've heard. It was the beginning of the guitar's second lap around the table when Cara sang and following her was this quiet young man, that as memory serves, had yet to even utter a word since my arrival.

This quiet young man, I soon discovered, was nothing of the sort. He took the guitar from Cara's hands, did something odd with the tuning and closed his eyes. I've since learned that Damien's eyes are always closed firmly shut when he sings. He becomes the song...

What came next is a memory I will carry to my grave. My first experience of Damien Dempsey's generous soul. This wasn't just a man performing a song, the very soul of the man was laid bare during the three or four minutes it took for him to sing The Celtic Tiger. I was stunned and my face must have been telling the room as much. Reynolds' eyed me in the same way coke heads do when someone's about to chop `em out in the bathroom. I followed him upstairs to the studio and he played me an unmixed version of The Celtic Tiger they'd been working on towards the then soon to be completed Seize The Day album. The contributions on the track from Brian Eno and Sinead O'Connor were impressive, but for fecks' sake, the same passion I'd just witnessed at the kitchen table was now hitting me from the speakers. A testament to Reynolds and Dempsey's talents. Getting "the spirit" to tape is the hardest thing of all to capture when recording music. I was sold. I was in that oh-so special, glorious and rare moment of finding the artist that sings for me and me only.

It was good while longer before I once again came into contact with Damien's music. Perhaps part of me didn't want to confront this mighty talent a second time, the song writer in me fearing belittlement.

A rainy Friday night in October 2003 had me playing a solo acoustic show of my own in Dublin. The following night Damien and his band were playing at Vicar's Street, there was a gang of us visiting Dublin from London that weekend, all staying at the same hotel and all Hell bent on the pursuit of The Good Times. I hadn't been in Dublin for years and certainly I'd never been there with so many of it's natives on my side. I must've been grinning for the entire three days because at some point my new friend, John Dunford, said to me:

"You're having a grand time here are you Miles?", I confirmed his suspicions.
"D'you know what it is you see when you're walking down any street in Ireland? Every man and every woman you see here has a song, or a piece of music, in their hearts and in their souls. You cunts in England used to have much the same, but somehow you all just went and forgot how it is...."

Those words may have been offered to me with no great importance, it's hard to tell with The Irish, but they might as well have been a hammer blow to my temple. He'd said it all. Everything I'd lost over the years by turning my love of music into "my career" suddenly were no longer missing. There was something to these people that gravitated toward Damien Dempsey that I needed. I'd been wandering aimlessly for too long. In that short comment of Dunford's it was as if everything had just been brought back into focus. Music's love for me, not my love for it, had just been returned to me.

As Damien took the stage at Vicars Street you'd easily be forgiven for thinking you were at a football match. A thousand, and more, audience members chorusing together "DAMO-OH! DAMO-OH! DAMO-OH!" all in unison and all fully aware of what it was they were about to witness. Even though I'd had the kitchen table experience at John Reynolds' West London home, I still had no idea that a Damien Dempsey show is a show of biblical proportions.

Damien holds a guitar as if he's wrestling with an unruly child. He knows of it's potential, he knows that if he can just keep it under control and nurture it's inherent goodness moments of unequalled joy and beauty are abound. Straight backed, he quieted his audience with these words, "As the mighty poet..... (pausing for comedic affect) Elton John.... once said, Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting. Well I t'ink Saturday night is better for singing, whyn't ya's sing this with me...."

He then launched into the opening bars of Seize The Day, the title track from his 2003 album. Three words into the song, the title as it happens, with seemingly everyone in the room singing along with him and I had tears streaming down my face.

This Is The Moment I Live For. And No Other. Nothing Will Equal It. Nothing.

Since that night in October '03 I have listened to Damien Dempsey's music everyday. Songs from either Seize The Day or it's predecessor They Don't Teach This Shit In School. He doesn't have a wasted recorded moment. And now as I write you this, January 2005, I have in my possession his third album, Shots, a full two months before it's commercial release. I told you, this music is made for me and me only.

Last Monday night I stayed with a dear friend of mine, Elaine, in London. I'd been living with her for the last four years, only recently heading back to the Midlands for sanity's sake. She is also a self confessed Damo Nut. We drank, in what used to be my local pub, until closing time, catching up, having not seen each other for well over a month. After the pub called time we grabbed a couple of bottles of wine and headed, with great purpose, toward her stereo. The same stereo we had sung and danced around to Damien's music on far too many an occasion to be considered normal. I was shitting myself. What if I don't like it as much as the other albums? What if he's lost it? What if, what if, what if... I poured the wine and lit a cigarette, as I always do when confronted with my nerves. I was actually trembling as I pushed the play button on Elaine's CD player.

Just as he had that night at Vicars Street, well over a year ago now, Damien begins Shots with his acoustic guitar, no other accompaniment. Elaine and I looked right into each others clouding eyes and grinned uncontrollable grins. There was nothing to worry about, it was Damien Dempsey for crying out loud. I felt like a smack head taking his first shot in far too long. I was warm and comforted, but simultaneously my skin was freezing and it's hairs were standing to attention. My mind was in a frenzy of excitement. I don't even love people as much as I love this.

Shots opens with Sing All Your Cares Away. A song that tells the stories of Mary (an alcoholic, "hiding bottles around the house"), Michael (unemployed, and "finds it hard some days to dress"), Stevie ("consumed by rage, like his Father at his age"), Rita ("a struggling single mother"), Joey (a recovering heroin addict, "he gets bored out of his mind") and Maggie (crippled by a joy riding incident "but she's always got a smile.")

All that consumed, Damien offers "But we grow strong from it all". It's a million miles away from empty optimism, it's harsh and it's even lonely. As if the singer himself isn't convinced that we do grow stronger from it all. But maybe, just maybe, if he sings it just that bit harder, it will all come good. The might of Dempsey's right hand, tearing into his guitar is tougher than any Marshall stacked Metal I've ever heard. John Reynolds' exacting drumming punctuates and rolls the song along in equal measure. The pipes, whistles and flutes... or whatever those undeniably Irish noises are, mainline the music into your veins. This one song alone makes this the greatest album ever made.

Following Sing All Your Cares Away is a beauty of a song that I had begun to worry was condemned to never seeing a release. RTE, Ireland's nearest equivalent to the UK's BBC, broadcast an hour long documentary last year, charting Damien's rise to a Platinum selling artist in his home country. One of the many live performances included in the documentary is Not On Your Own Tonight, a beautiful example of Dempsey at his most intense. But somehow managing to avoid the song becoming his solitary experience, to say that Not On Your Own Tonight is generous is a major understatement. Featuring hardly any other instrumentation beyond the Man and his voice it paints images of an isolated existence, not caring for the city he lives in and it not caring for him. The song acts as an olive branch to any lone soul that feels as he does, "If you feel real bad, then you're not on your own tonight".

Mutual reticence, if such a thing can exist, will chase away the ghosts, that's how I hear it at any rate. I once read a review of a rare Dempsey solo show in London. The reviewer took umbrage with Damien's optimism, thinking it trite. Maybe optimism in itself is trite, who fuckin' knows... Who of us hasn't reacted positively to a warm arm around the shoulders in times of darkness? If only for four minutes or so.

You could, if was your want, over emphasise the Irishness of Damien's music, whether it be in the instrumentation or the subject matter of the lyrics, as in the case of St Patrick's Day.

A songwriter friend of mine, who shall remain nameless said to me recently, "Someone needs to tell tell The Irish that it's not only them that suffer". If that friend of mine is of a mind to tell them, then I won't stand in his way. What I say is write about what you know. If you manage to write about that well, stick with it Brother. Dempsey writes about Ireland's hardships, past and present, and he writes about them well. What he doesn't do is paint a picture of his people, or himself, as victims. Far from it.

In Choctaw Nation he vents his shame at wrong doings done to the Native American tribe by an Irish man. On his last album, Seize The Day, he took a wry look at Ireland's infamous love of the drink in Jar Song, name checking Shane McGowan, Brendan Behan and Luke Kelly without the slightest nod at pity. But the fact remains that Damien's 'Irishness' is simple matter of geography. Wherever the man may have been born, he would take his surroundings to heart. His spirit is too large to contain to one place and one place only.

For those of you already familiar with Dempsey's previous two albums there are two reworkings of previously released songs, Party On and Colony. I assume that they are here because since touring as extensively as he has in the last couple of years the songs have grown beyond their original recordings. Damien's delivery is now bordering on mastery. His vocal performances on Patience and Hold Me are absurdly powerful. One is pure anger, the other pure love. Not since Jeff Buckley's Grace have I heard a man sound so in love as Dempsey does on Hold Me.

As a long time observer of Dempsey I consider Shots an absolute triumph of a record. Every nuance of his talent is in the assent.

Damien once called me a "warrior". It was after I had opened a show for him in Dublin. At first I thought he said a was a "worrier" and he wouldn't have been far wrong. But he didn't. He said it because I'd stood my ground and sang my songs to an unforgivingly partisan Damien Dempsey audience. I'm no warrior, not in any sense. An entertainer, yes. The term, when used to describe what Dempsey and I do with our lives (singers songwriters) belongs solely to him. Fighting the good fight and setting the example for the rest of us to follow.

God speed to you Dempsey. Oh yeah.... and thankyou!

Damien Dempsey's Shots is released on 14 March 2005.

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