Forget Iron John and farting in the woods, the Men’s Movement has a new champion. And this one knows how to use his voice as well as his fists. Dublin boy and junior boxing champion Damien Dempsey brought his unique blend of Irish rock and sweaty soul to the 100 Club for a gig that left not a dry eye in the house: well for the lads present anyway.
He arrived on stage, black shirt, shaved head and guitar slung round his neck, a doppelganger for most of the good ol’ boys in the audience. He launched into a boisterous rendition of Negative Vibes, the first single from last year’s acclaimed Seize the Day album, which was previewed at the gig. This was followed by a succession of songs of bile bitten humour from St Patrick’s Day, the first single from his new album, to the plaintive Not on Your Own Tonight, also from Shots, sung with more subtly and, thankfully, less gusto than most of the set.
His songs speak of suffering and struggle, the stock in trade for Irish singers and authors from Christy Moore to Frank McCourt, and that is where it got a bit much for this reviewer. The angst just did not sit comfortably with the pub singer presentation, despite the accomplished musicianship of Damo’s band. Too many of the much-touted singer songwriter’s lyrics were lost in the anthemic sing-alongs.
Does that matter? Well, there has been a lot of hype surrounding Dempsey, with his management toting around references from Shane McGowan to Sinead O’Connor, who guested on his last album and whom Dempsey supported on her 2002 tour. He has also supported those far subtler chroniclers of the male condition, Morrissey, at the Manchester Evening News Arena, and Bob Dylan, in Dublin. Clearly his work hits the same emotional response buttons to Dempsey’s predominantly male fans as Morrissey, but without the lilting delivery or defiant bravura it was hard to feel their emotional charge.
Much about his work is bright, positive self-help for big blokes, delivered by a man who undoubtedly feels strongly about his subject matter, be that post-bender come down or post relationship healing. And the guys in the audience were happy to join in, bellowing like there were no tomorrow and too many yesterdays. But somehow the stories lost something in the telling, and Damien’s delivery failed to elevate this performance beyond a good singsong into the realms of a night to remember from a singer about to crash into the big time.
Dempsey has a reputation for powerful, poetic and emotional performances. Two out of three might not be bad, but on the rare occasions when he let the poet’s quieter voice be heard amid the noise it left me wanting so much more.