It is hard to find a great deal of sympathy for Damien Rice. The Dublin-born singer songwriter has, in the past three years, sold well over 2 million copies of his critically-lauded debut album 0, reputedly shacked up with Oscar winner Rene Zellweger and found his single The Blower’s Daughter splurged across the soundtrack of almost every romantic drama committed to celluloid.
However, the notoriously prickly Irishman still hasn’t cheered up, despite his second album, 9, earning good, if not spectacular reviews and sales. His refusal to give interviews, alongside his frequent hissy fits during concerts (demands that fans stop taking pictures of him or cease talking during his songs are commonplace) have meant that for all his carefully crafted vignettes on the instabilities of love, he tends to come across as a bit of an artistic prima donna.
But, with fans like the ones inhabiting the Hammersmith Apollo, you suddenly begin to feel a little empathy towards the miserable crooner. Taking to the stage to a veritable barrage of camera flashes, which continue throughout the concert, Rice immediately begins a battle against idiotic hecklers and vacuous bimbos screeching into their mobile phones, with the people who’ve actually turned up to watch a concert, not just ‘that one out of Closer’ end up taking matters into their own hands and start threatening physical violence.
Rice, to his credit, ignores most of this, despite looking like walking off after one prat decides to ask what most of the congregation are thinking, namely, why errant cellist and co-writer Lisa Hannigan isn’t on the tour, having left the group the day before “after much thought and discussion.”
I don’t know, he mutters through gritted teeth, which is as much as we get out of him until the encore. It’s a shame that this atmosphere can spoil a concert so outright, but you do get the impression that the cavernous surroundings of the Apollo, hecklers or no hecklers, isn’t the right place to see a musician so fragile as Rice.
For his part, it seems Rice plays for the crowd, not himself. Sticking, probably wisely, mainly to hits from his debut album, he puts on an accomplished, but not spellbinding show. Plumping, in typically belligerent fashion to open with a solo, acoustic B-Side The Professor & La Fille Danse, Rice fails really to engage with the audience until the rest of the band join him for latest single Elephant.
Looking more like the support act, balanced at the front of the stage under a blistering spotlight, Rice seems not to have found the knack of holding a large audience, many of them disinterested newcomers, in the palm of his hand during the tenderest moments. Gorgeous ballads Amie and Older Chests are swallowed in the cavernous venue, and it is only when Rice takes leave of the record’s earnestness and breaks out the electric guitar and effects pedal that people start to sit up and take notice.
Veering quickly from full-on rock wig-out to prog rock, and back to plaintive singer-songwriter angst, Rice really steps up a gear during a lung-busting Eskimo Friend, and a fraught I Remember, which ends with the singer sprawled on the floor, whispering his self-loathing over and over, like some kind of over-artistic Hail Mary.
Similarly, on Rootless Tree, whose chorus of “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you and all we’ve been through” is just plain embarrassing on record, takes on a new life live when Rices band turn the song upside down with a spine tingling piano-led chorus.
He finishes, after downing a bottle of wine during a long preamble to Cheers Darlin’, with a heart stopping version of hit single Cannonball, delivered at the front of the stage without any amplification. And, just for once, the crowd shuts up and listens. It is, of course, the highlight of the night.