Damien Rice, Academy Glasgow

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The Independent Culture

First, a few heartening facts for all despairing songwriters furtively strumming guitars in bedrooms or busking in underpasses. Less than two years ago Damien Rice was bumming around Europe. Now, the Dubliner has sold out every date of his UK tour and his self-penned, self-produced debut album, O, has gone triple platinum in his native Ireland and flown off the shelves across the rest of the UK. If Norah Jones is now the queen of wispy, acoustic jazz-soul, then Rice is the king of tortured folk elegies. And he's no relation to Tim.

Wannabees should get strumming because miracles can happen, even to angst-ridden, rag-tag boys who can chant such lines as "life taught me to die" - as Rice rants on one track - without laughing. Firmly rooted in the Dylanesque troubadour tradition, Rice is the most successful artist to emerge from the Irish folk-rock scene since label-mate David Gray, a one-man cult flung into the glare of stardom at such speed he must surely have been blinded by the light.

In Glasgow, the stage was lit by a line of church candles and the atmosphere akin to a rowdy Mass as the jam-packed crowd waited in breathless anticipation for Rice, the high priest of heartbreak and midnight melancholy. On record he comes over as a post-millennial miserabilist with a scratchy, scuffed voice, but on stage he is expansively confident and much, much louder. He opens with "Volcano", winding it up into a distorted rock-out monster replete with mangled acoustic guitar riffs. His band, including vocalist Lisa Hannigan and cellist Vyvienne Long, pick up his cues and a digital screen sparks into life behind them with artsy mini-movies illustrating each song.

Vocally reminiscent of Paul Brady, with traces of Jeff and Tim Buckley and hints of Van Morrison, Rice rolls out anguished stories of love and loss in a bizarre cocktail of acoustic picking and orchestral excess. He projects the tousled traveller look, but scrape away the earthy Irish surface and his show is as slick as a Westlife concert. Amid numbers from O is a chanson moment, a faintly feminist ditty about men and their dicks and a lot of guitar-thrashing.

At one point, Rice steps over the candles to sing "Eskimo" without amplification. The result was that most of the audience couldn't hear him and only the first few rows sang to the twee chorus. This precious, smug device was exacerbated by his declaration that he couldn't understand why people paid for tickets then talked over the music. That told us.

To his legion of fans, Rice is adored for his "understated" approach, but this show was often overstated to a desperate degree. He adjusts his vocal volume maniacally as half-whispered verses give way to shouted choruses. It all shrieks of high melodrama but most of the emotional weight comes from Lisa Hannigan's gorgeous, shimmering harmonies.

This year's Christmas No 1 - Gary Jules's shivery version of "Mad World" - suggests we are desperate for moody songsters who can bring us something deeper. But I left unconvinced and unmoved by this ranting, roving Dubliner, who has become expert at making overwrought dramas out of not very much at all.

Damien Rice plays the Brixton Academy, London, on Friday and Saturday

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