Sunday 15 September 2019

The return of the Donaghmede Druid

Damien Dempsey, the 21st Century Luke Kelly, possesses something within him that borders on ancient wisdom

Dempsey is a gentle giant with a tongue of an especially wise seanchai
Dempsey is a gentle giant with a tongue of an especially wise seanchai
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

When we sing a song we give our soul a cuddle, Damien Dempsey once said. The Donaghmede Druid has been giving his soul a serious cuddle for a good while now since his 2000 debut They Don't Teach This Shit in School album (the track Dublin Town remains a raw classic.)

Eighteen years on, the balladic bard has brought in quite a few luminaries to give his soul a collaborative cuddle on his new album Union.

Expect the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up when you hear The Keepers of the Flame with Lisa O'Neill, A Child is An Open Book with Kate Tempest, Big Big Love with Imelda May, Celtic Tiger with Sinead O'Connor or Maasai with Moya Brennan.

This is to say nothing of Gaelic Ireland with Pauline Scanlon or You're Like the Water with Maverick Sabre.

You can see why he has been compared to Luke Kelly and Christy Moore when you hear him sing Singing Bird (with Finbar Furey) and Kevin Barry (with Seamus Begley).

You can see why everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Morrissey to Brian Eno (who played on Damo's 2003 Seize The Day) are such devotees of Damien Dempsey when he opens his mouth and sings such powerful words as: "I never thought I'd feel this weak or rejected, but I just know it's gonna pass," from his duet Soulsun - the title track of Damo's 2017 album - with John Grant.

"I love collaborating with people who move me with their music and lyrics and soul and voice," Damo told Hot Press.

"And when we collaborate with music we always learn something from each other and take a little bit of each other's spirit and magic away with us.

"You always come up with something that you wouldn't have if alone; souls and minds mingle, kindred spirits connect and dance, creativity crackles, and the results can be wonderful.

"Union is a myriad of styles and a bit of a melting pot but I adore melting pots and I reckon there's something for everyone here."

Union is that and a little - if not a lot - more besides, featuring 14 songs that were picked from different points in Damo's 20-year sonic journey.

During those two decades Damo has built up quite a fan base - and I'm not just talking about the aforesaid Mr Springsteen and Mr Morrissey, et al.

Proof of this is reflected in the fact that Damo is playing four mostly sold-out nights at Vicar Street this Yuletide, starting on Wednesday, December 12 before revving up again on December 21, 22 and 23.

He is a gentle giant with the tongue of an especially wise seanchai on him.

Added to that, the northside troubadour also possesses something that borders on ancient wisdom, like he is channelling in his singing someone shamanic from a long, long time ago.

In this regard, Damien Dempsey is a 21st Century Luke Kelly echoing back through the ages, while still being very much based in an urban setting where young people find it difficult to find a future without jobs or hope. Inner city blues, to paraphrase Marvin Gaye, just wanna make Damo holler.

When I listen to Union in its entirety, I get a glimpse of what was going through Damo's head when he grew up in Donaghmede where, as he told The Irish Times, he was "learning from sing-songs in my granny's in Cabra and my other granny in Irishtown… and my house and other houses on the street… And you'd be there with the guitar asked to back people.

"That was a baptism of fire I can tell you, someone totally out of tune and out of time and you're asked to back them".

Damien Dempsey plays Vicar Street in Dublin on December 12, 21, 22 and 23.

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