Damien Rice, Wembley Arena, London

Rice offers a really smouldering performance
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The Independent Culture

It takes guts to open a two-hour-long set, at such a huge venue, alone at the grand piano. But that is exactly what Damien Rice does, caressing the keyboard and whispering the first verse of "9 Crimes", the opening track on 9, his current album and the follow-up to O, his debut, which deservedly found a home on a million coffee tables in the UK.

Unlike the latest, anodyne wave of young singer-songwriters, Rice has done a fair bit of living and loving and it shows in his material. Since he was born in Dublin and grew up in County Kildare, you'd expect him to have a way with words, and lines such as, "Is that alright, yeah? I give my gun away when it's loaded," are replete with meaning and resonate long into the night.

Rice knows when he's struck gold, repeating cyclical motifs over and over again like the natural heir to Van Morrison he's on the way to becoming. He switches to his battered acoustic guitar for "Older Chests" as the cellist Vyvienne Long tiptoes on before the rest of the band join them for "Then Go". The sound ebbs and flows, and Rice, who is a real smoulderer of a performer, goes from a whisper to a scream during "Volcano".

Think John Lennon in primal therapy, Plastic Ono Band mode, or the way Seventies singer-songwriter John Martyn would loop a guitar riff, especially when Rice hits the pedals and uses a separate microphone to distort his vocals. Mind you, he occasionally drifts into jam band territory, reprising "Me, My Yoke & I", even when the audience tells him he should stop by clapping after the loudest section. Of course, The Pixies and Nirvana used the quiet-loud dynamics before Rice, but the way he introduced sexual politics and dynamics into the mix lets him tap into a much richer vein of material.

He talks about periods, sperm counts, drunken nights, and sings about problematic and messy relationships from the perspective of a man who's had a few. He is so adept at conveying male and female perspectives that I don't even miss the call and response presence of Lisa Hannigan, the second vocalist who departed earlier this year to record her own album.

Rice adlibs Jacques Brel-style at the end of "The Professor & La Fille Danse", drifts into Cher's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" during "I Remember", makes fun of himself for "writing another depressing song" by way of introducing the spellbinding "Grey Room" and closes with the mellow crowd-pleaser "Cannonball".

However, Rice is an archetypal singer-songwriter who can get involved in broader issues. His encore gives a platform to eight Burmese refugees, with Zoya Phan leading the audience into a Buddhist chant in support of protesters in Burma. Rice then performs "Unplayed Piano", a song he wrote two years ago to highlight the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement who has been under house arrest since 2003. It's a poignant moment in an emotional rollercoaster of an evening. Rice was even better than I had expected.

The tour continues at Plymouth, Bournemouth, Manchester and Cardiff More info at damienrice.com