Damien Dempsey is a protest singer but don’t place him in any box, Getintothis’ Alan O’Hare finds the Irish songwriter with the keys to get out to the world.
“They’re so tired of shooting protest singers, that they hardly mention us,” sang Elvis Costello many moons ago.
At that time, back in the mid-to-late 1980s, the likes of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Kirsty MacColl were all songwriters who took the temperature of the political climate (as well as that of the human condition), alongside Costello and his Tokyo Storm Warning. Across the water, in Ireland, Christy Moore was leading the way with the songs and messages, too.
Fast forward 30 years, though, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that protest singers are hardly mentioned because they just don’t exist any more. Forgiven, but scolded: as protest singers are still ten-a-penny. Especially in times like these and with an election around the corner. But, great ones… well, they’re more difficult to come by. You just have to look that little bit further up from the mainstream.
Damien Dempsey is a great one – and an artist who hasn’t compromised to reach a certain level. Although not as well known in England as in his native Ireland, the Donaghmede songwriter commands the respect of everyone his music comes into contact with and he fills rooms the size of the big one at the O2 Academy regularly. This night would be no exception.
Dempsey took to the stage with the orchestral fanfare that opens his latest album, Almighty Love. His singing can only be described as a sound of nature – he can find the blue skies, as well as the dark clouds, and always with that ambiguous ache found in the storm of all Ireland’s greatest singers.
The five-piece band were led from the front, by the acoustic guitar of the singer, but this was so much more than meat and potatoes rabble-rousing. Drummer and long-time producer (he’s also produced Sinead O’Connor on many occasions) John Reynolds gives Dempsey and his band the keys to any particular box you want to place them in. We were treated to rolling thunder reggae (Negative Vibes), tribal African drones (Massai) and the waltz-time laments of his native land (Chris And Stevie), as all the while Dempsey put on a show.
This is vital: whatever the intangible factor is that turns good songs into communion hosts for an assembled throng, Dempsey is in possession of it. Stalking the stage like a boxer about to face the challenge of his life, the songwriter even pulls guitars off and on like he is stepping into the ring.
It was a special night. And a night to tell tales about to the next person who asks you where all the protest singers have gone. Tell them, that they’re playing in a venue near you tonight. And tell them, also, that it’s never been easier to find out more about them and where to see them.
And, above all else, tell them about Damien Dempsey. They’ll never privatise word of mouth.
Photos by Getintothis’ John Johnson