Damien Dempsey – Mandela Hall, Belfast
Damien Dempsey has long been hailed as an ‘Irish Bob Marley’ owing to his reggae influenced sound and the impassioned social commentary in his lyrics.
Tonights eager crowd shouting ‘Dam-O, Dam-O’ repeatedly as they await his arrival are an indication of just how loved he is on these shores.
Striding onto the Mandela Hall stage with his four piece band, Dempsey is greeted by a raucous cacophony of whoops and cheers and with a strum of his guitar its straight off into the set with ‘Maasai‘ from the 2007 album ‘To Hell or Barbados’. A compelling opener this showcases the talent of his band as the song spirals giving it a hypnotic feel. On ‘Sing All Our Cares Away’ the Belfast crowd do just that, joining in on the anthem from 2003s ‘Seize The Day’ album.
Although the subject matter for a lot of the songs is bleak, Dempsey himself is a positive force and at over 6ft, the former boxer manages to make his acoustic guitar look like a ukulele in his large hands. He never stops smiling as he surveys the crowd. Serving up ‘Canadian Geese’ next he sings about growing up in Dublin’s Northside and his dreams of leaving to travel the world, something that a lot of us can relate to.
On ‘Chris and Stevie’ from 2012’s ‘Almighty Love’ Dempsey sings poignantly about the subject of suicide and opens by telling us that people need to talk about their feelings. It’s an emotional moment as he sings ‘To all young people, be proud of who you are’. Its great advice from a man who is genuine and positive.
With the sweat lashing off his brow from the stage lights, Dempsey sings a rousing rendition of ‘James Connolly’, a union song by Patrick Galvin, in homage to the famous socialist. Accompanied only by sparse guitar chords the power of his voice is never more obvious as he blasts out the lyrics with conviction.
In keeping with his traditional roots Dempsey and his band fire up a version of ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ which is notably attributed to The Dubliners. And in keeping with this Damo has a picture of Barney McKenna taped to his guitar in tribute. With Wayne Sheehy taking to the bodhran instead of the drums it amps up the atmosphere and the crowd are on the cusp of a ceili, pints flailing and spilling on the floor. Unfortunately there’s always one person that spoils it and when a gig goer flings a pint up onto the stage from the floor, narrowly missing John McLoughlin’s electric guitar the security men pounce in an attempt to eject the offender who appears to think he’s done nothing wrong. One less selfie snapping person at a gig is no big loss anyway but I am shocked at the attitude of some gig goers these days. Talking throughout shows is a bugbear of mine, and snapping pictures and videos without actually watching the artist also grinds my gears, but I just don’t get the mentality of winging a pint of beer you’ve queued and paid for, at an artist you have paid to see. But hey, call me old fashioned.
Eamonn deBarra, who has been playing the keys all night, takes centre stage to play a reel called ‘Lucky In Love‘ on the flute and once again the Mandela Hall floor takes a battering with spectators trying in vain to keep pace with the 4/4 beat in cut time. This segues into ‘Apple Of My Eye’ about Dempseys’ (and the Irish’) love affair with New York and we all join in singing along about feeling ‘the city’s’ lure’.
The song I have been waiting for gets an airing next; ‘Party On’ was the first Damien Dempsey song I ever heard on an RTE show called ‘Other Voices’ and I couldn’t get the Dub with the thick brogue out of my head. A topical song about partying and drug culture and how it robs young people of joy and light it is as relevant today as it was when I first heard it in 2003 and when it builds to a frenetic pace we all chant ‘Party Onnnn’ like our lives depend on it. Leaving the stage to applause the crowd begins to once again chant ‘Dam-O, Dam-O’ and when the house lights stay dim its only a matter of time before he reappears to satisfy the appetite of his fans.
‘Patience‘ with its reggae sound and semi falsetto vocals gets a rattle and gets us all swaying along. Its a song directed at the music industry and how it sells bubblegum pop to the masses as a way of keeping them dumbed down, as opposed to talented songwriters. ‘Seize the Day‘ from the eponymous album is the penultimate song of the set, followed by the magical ‘Its All Good’ which brings the show to a close. There’s something really special about the song; the introduction from Dempsey commanding us to ‘go home and give yourself a big kiss in the mirror’ coupled with everyone in the venue singing the refrain of ‘Love yourself today, ok? Ok’ only serves to confirm that.
Although Damien Dempsey is a ‘love him or hate him’ type of singer I am firmly in the love camp, and his gigs are life affirming as the man just radiates positivity with his message of self belief, love for others and tolerance. This world needs more of that for sure.