For an introvert, Damien Rice is certainly chatty tonight. Although he starts hesitantly, nervily, his anecdotes are funny and charming, if indicative of something we already suspected - that this is a man who has wrestled with plenty of demons.
At previous gigs, he has been known to not talk at all, and to seem distracted and ill at ease. But tonight, the more he talks, the more he gains momentum, becoming almost rakish, pausing with glee for the punchline. Could it be that his eight years of exile in Iceland have helped him to find himself?
The tracks from his new album would certainly suggest so. Rich, gorgeous melodies with lyrics that are more bittersweet than bitter. “The Box” and “The Greatest Bastard” are calmer, more appraising, than the wide-eyed fragility of O and the anger of 9. The title track, “My Favourite Faded Fantasy”, holds the audience spellbound, vulnerable to the heart-wrenching ballads that are to follow. Rice’s live show, though, belies his reputation as a balladeer, with rock riffs interrupting the reveries. “I Remember” descends into a type of madness, while he finishes up “Amie” bent double, singing into the hollow of his guitar, introspection personified, his voice echoing throughout the theatre.
It’s a big venue for essentially a one-man show, but he fills the room with ease, despite cutting a lonely figure in the semi-darkness on stage. The crowd is obliging, practically holding their breath for favourites like “Delicate” and “The Blower’s Daughter”, although they respond with vigour when he invites some ‘audience participation’ for a three-part singalong in “Volcano”. (This is just one of those moments where you long for Lisa Hannigan - former singing partner, lover and probably inspiration for the exile and heartache - to walk on stage.)
“Cannonball” doesn’t feature (has the atrocious Little Mix cover tarnished its appeal?), nor do crowd-pleasers like “Cheers, Darling”. But there was no feeling of being short-changed. “9 Crimes” is not just heart-wrenching, but heart-tearing-from-chest-and-stomping-on-it. “Amie” gains whole new meaning thanks to his funny, self-effacing, mildly regretful back-story. And every time a new melody starts, we are drawn back into the haunting fairytale.
Rice ends with “Trusty and True”, from the new album. Unplugged, away from the mike, it feels like the closest to a true Irish ballad of any of his songs. It is pleasant, dreamy, strangely familiar. A bit safe, I start to think, when, out of the gloom, a choir appears as if by magic to gasps of astonishment. Like all good magicians, Rice has used his powers of misdirection to ensure we were all too entranced to notice the choir assembling behind him.
One wonders if Rice’s unlucky-in-love awkwardness is all an act. Some of his songs are downright sexy. “Woman Like a Man” is grimy, dirty, and carries the swagger of a man who isn’t as bad at all this as he pretends. Either way, his discomfort with fame must ring true - he has stayed well out of the spotlight for almost a decade now, a truly tortured artist. Now it seems that he has resolved that inner conflict - or at least found a suitable voice for it. “Welcome back, Damo,” one man yells from the hushed crowd. He’s back in the spotlight now, that’s for sure. And he almost seems to be enjoying it.Reuse content