On a warm summers evening (… don’t worry, I am not about to quote ‘The Gambler’) I am enroute to Castlewellans Soma festival to see what it’s all about. Starting in 2013 the festival has been getting bigger and better every year attracting a high calibre of musical artists such as Eddi Reader, Lisa Hannigan, Declan O’Rourke, Duke Special and Paul Brady. Tonight, I am making my way to the small Co.Down town to see the inimitable Damien Dempsey, who is playing in St Malachy’s G.A.C, an intimate venue. The venue has been decked out in black curtains creating a great atmosphere and the artwork around the hall sets it off a treat. The festival is volunteer led and there are plenty of smiley folks in Soma t-shirts ready to help. The place is abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm, something that is often missing in larger festivals and I am looking forward to my first experience.
First on stage to get the crowd in gear is Donal Scullion, a singer-songwriter who by all accounts turns his hands to many styles of music and has his fingers in many music related pies. He is unassuming as he takes to the stage with his Guinness in hand and weaves stories easily with his guitar and soulful voice. Songs like ‘Clockmaker’ and ‘Turbulent Skies’ are rich with imagery and it is easy to get lost in t he characters he sings about. Although the highlight was the brilliant ‘Love On The Dole’ with it’s pithy lyrics and catchy tune and it left the audience with a smile on their faces. A talented guitarist and song writer I’d advise you all to give him a listen.
In my front row seat I have a prime view of the stage and I am somewhat glad when I glance around to see it is standing room only at the back of the hall. Shouts of ‘Damo! Damo!’ are heard in anticipation as he is introduced on stage complete with the Soma House band, made up of Jarlath Henderson on Uileann pipes, Kate Ellis on cello, Graham Henderson on keys and Liam Bradley on drums. When Dempsey strides onto the stage to take his place he cuts an impressive figure and he limbers up as though he is about to take part in a boxing match. Picking up his guitar he greets us warmly in gaeilge and for the non Irish speakers, adds in a Dublin ‘Howya’ before kicking off with ‘Negative Vibes’ from the 2003 album Seize The Day. Although this is 15 years old it still sounds fresh with it’s laid back reggae folk vibe and this takes on another dimension with the full band set up. The next song he dedicates to all the strong Celtic women and this elicits a cheer from all the mna in the hall as he plays ‘Maasai’. This song sounds like a tribal call to arms and it is spine tingling with the Uileann pipes and drums taking centre stage with Dempseys’ gutteral roar of a voice. His songwriting has the ability to transport to another place and time and stir your Celtic blood.
For the next song he challenges us all to sing along to help him out with the threat that anyone who doesn’t sing along ‘will be fucked out of the hall’ and coming from a man of his stature, no one takes any chances, so the room erupts in a singalong version of ‘Seize The Day’. Although Dempseys voice can be throaty, fierce and powerful, on songs such as this you hear his softer side. He is an affable and engaging performer and it’s obvious he enjoys audience banter and interaction as he tells us he is ‘very happy to be here’ and it is 100% genuine.
He knows his audience well as he sings a version of ‘Schooldays Over’ a song made famous by Luke Kelly and the Dubliners and once again everyone joins in as if it is one big traditional session. Staying with the older songs in Celtic history Dempsey introduces an old Scottish song about war called the ‘The Kings Shilling’ and complete with band this was mesmerising. Liam Bradleys drumming creates an atmosphere of a military march which set the scene well for the mournful ballad about the futility of young men dying in war. It’s a very emotional moment.
Capitalising on the mood of the crowd Dempsey chooses to sing ‘Chris and Stevie’ from 2012s Almighty Love. If you have never heard this song please do yourself a favour and look it up, it’s a very moving song about two of Dempseys friends who committed suicide, and it highlights the need to talk about your problems with it’s powerful lyrics ‘Talk to me and tell me how you feel. Lean on me, I’m here, my love is real’. Given the huge problem in our society with mental health and the stigma attached, the numerous suicides of local people and high profile stars it is a timely reminder to keep talking and Dempsey himself implores people to share their problems and talk to people they trust. I don’t think there is a dry eye in the house when he is finished and he is visibly moved himself by the reaction of the crowd, the applause and cheering. He follows this with ‘Almighty Love’ from the eponymous album and it is a positive burst of a song again reinforcing the importance of friendship and loving one another. A lot of Damien Dempseys song are hard hitting but there is a life affirming quality to all of them which have such a great message.
Lifting the mood slightly is ‘Raglan Road’, again a standard for fans of Luke Kelly and once again the venue descends into a sing-along. The Soma house band are exemplary on this as they take over on the third verse for an instrumental and although Dempsey alone is amazing they elevate the whole show. ‘Rocky Road To Dublin’ is next on the setlist and it is as Dempsey describes ‘the hardest song to sing in the English language’ as such is the speed and wordiness of the lyrics but he does it perfectly. ‘Apple Of My Eye’ is a welcome tempo changer and Jarlath Henderson accompanies perfectly on the low whistle. Once again we are encouraged to sing along and Mr Dempsey is so impressed with our vocal talents he jokingly asks ‘Whose house are we all going back to? You’ll need three things; loads of Buckfast, deaf neighbours, and chicken wings’ . I think he’s only half joking to be honest.
Taking a slug of his bottle of wine on stage he lashes into ‘Party On’ which is a song about drug culture and the depression that follows for many people, with lyrics like ‘Coming down on the ground in a small house, you’re a man but you feel like a small mouse, not so long ago you felt like a king, someone give my psychiatrist a ring’. It has such a rousing beat, and with the addition of Graham Henderson on keys, Kate Ellis on cello and the Uileann pipes it gets the whole room buzzing. Ending the set on ‘Sing All Our Cares Away’ is a positive note about growing strong or falling through lifes challenges in typical Damo life affirming style.
But we aren’t finished with him. The roars and cheers of ‘Damo! Damo!’ threaten to continue long into the night if he doesn’t return on stage, so on he comes, back to sing ‘Sally MacLennane’ a capella. Although it is a well known song by The Pogues he makes it his own and puts the Dempsey stamp to it. Welcoming the band back on stage and thanking them all again he tells a story of how his granny had a dream that he wrote a song for her so he thought he had better, and not wanting to leave his other granny and grandparents out he penned ‘Colony’ from the 2005 album Shots for all of them, a song about imperialism and the scars it leaves behind.
And with a final song, ‘It’s All Good’ Dempsey tells us that he believes you have to give thanks for your heart, your sight, your hearing and your voice and all that makes you you and to go home and kiss the mirror and ‘tell yourself, I love you ya bollix’ and although we all laugh there is a truth there and the sincerity with which he says it is a wonderful thing and so we all willingly sing along with the end of the song, ‘Love yourself today, ok, ok’ before he exits the stage with promises to come back to the festival next year.
Damien Dempsey is the role model young people, men, especially need these days, showing that there is strength in vulnerability and talking about your feelings and loving yourself. He was an inspired choice for the Soma festival and just like Damo I hope to be back next year.