by Philip Ferguson
“Damo! Damo! Damo!” came the roar, punctuated by shouts of “You’re a legend!” The legend is the magnificent Damien Dempsey, one of Ireland’s finest singer-songwriter-musicians – indeed described by the Guardian as “the greatest Irish singer of his generation” – currently touring in New Zealand to promote his Best Of collection. This is a man with three platinum albums and a string of gold ones, who can pack stadiums and places like the Sydney Opera House, and here he is in New Zealand playing bars. Last night I was part of a crowd of about 200 packing out the Dux de Lux post-earthquake bar in Addington.
“Thank you for coming to Christchurch,” called out one Irish accent. “Thanks for coming to see me,” Damo shot back. The whole night I never heard a single New Zealand accent; it was like being transported back to Ireland. The crowd was overwhelmingly Irish, young – mainly in their twenties and early thirties – and very, very enthusiastic. I don’t think Dempsey initially realised the make-up of the crowd. When he came on stage, he said “Kia ora” to a rather blank response; then someone called back “Dia duit!” (Irish for ‘hello’) and he responded “Dia’s Muire duit”. (Unfortunately, the Irish language was colonised by religion, so ‘hello’ is literally “God be with you” and the response is literally “God and Mary be with you.”)
Dempsey sings about all kinds of aspects of the human condition, but he’s also from a poor, hardcore working class area in Dublin. So he’s republican and a kind of gut socialist. It was fascinating watching the interplay between him and the audience and a reminder of how rich Irish musical culture is compared to our own in this country. The kind of musical boundaries that exist here don’t really exist in Ireland, in particular a boundary between folk (or “urban folk”, as Dempsey has described his music) and rock. The audience at the Dux acted like the audience at a very enthusiastic rock concert; they sang along, they pumped their fists in the air, they chanted “Damo! Damo!” quite a bit, they called out “you’re a legend” from time to time and so on, the kind of things that would be unacceptable at a folk gig here.
It was also inspiring to see a couple of hundred young, white working class people singing along to a song like “Colony”, which includes lines about chewing up and spitting out the ruling classes of Europe. Can’t really imagine a similar demographic of New Zealanders singing along to a song about chewing up and spitting out the ruling classes of this part of the world! As Damo sang about workers from the worst slums in Dublin rising in armed rebellion, fists went into the air and a solid chunk of the crowd were singing along to every word of it. In his introduction he also made it explicitly clear that the people being attacked in the song were the ruling classes of Europe, not the ordinary people of the European powers that murdered and pillaged their way around the globe.
One of Dempsey’s most heartfelt songs is about two friends of his who “were cut down from a rope”, Chris and Stevie. Stevie had decided that he wanted to be a tough guy and he got mesmerised “by the life of the thug”, but it all turned sour and he ended up committing suicide. Chris was a boxing mate of Dempsey’s and “was quite a tough, and to his face you wouldn’t call him a poof”; but this young gay guy hung himself. It was interesting to see how well the audience knew the lyrics of this song; young, straight working class guys standing near me – I assume they were straight because they spent part of the evening chatting up young women – were singing along to it, without any inhibitions at all, punching their fists in the air as Dempsey sang in support of Chris and his right to be gay. It was an interesting sign of the changes in the overall culture of Ireland – well, this would have been an overwhelmingly southern Irish audience – over the course of a generation. From a society that was very uptight about things sexual, especially if they were homosexual, the south of Ireland has moved literally a century forward in the space of a generation.
It also reminded me how politics is completely woven into Irish society in a way that has no comparison in New Zealand, and most certainly not in pakeha New Zealand. I doubt very many in the audience last night would even see themselves as ‘political’; singing about oppression and exploitation and armed rebellion is just an ordinary part of working class music in Ireland, a music that has a massive audience and one which will turn out for a folk singer like Dempsey one week and a hard rock band the next. By comparison, this country really is a cultural backwater. The Irish are an extremely culturally sophisticated people, and the working class in Ireland has been in the vanguard of this sophistication for a good century.
The song which probably best shows off his voice is “Masaai”, one of my great favourites of Mr Dempsey’s songs, and this was the third number he performed. The last word of the first line of each verse, Damo holds and takes on places you don’t think possible without taking a breath. The guy on the door, and whose back was to the stage, actually turned round to look as Damo bent this note, took it higher and bent it some more. I don’t think he’d heard anything quite like it. Although I’m not keen on the way Dempsey links this song to “spirituality” in his patter, there are some great lines belted out such as “not like some swine, with no semblance of spine”. To me, it reads as a really powerful statement about living life to the full and not being afraid to die. Great stuff, although I’m not sure I share the sentiment “When I die, I want to die at the hands of a Masaai!”
Near the end of his set Dempsey declared, “I might need mouth to mouth after this, but no beards please” and launched into his fantastic version of “The Rocky Road to Dublin”. My favourite version of this song has long been the one the Chieftains do with the (thankfully Jaggerless) Rolling Stones; it rocks just like the song should. I first saw Damo do this song a few weeks back on a youtube clip of him playing to a vast indoor audience in Dublin, and was converted to his version. Last night he pulled it off with the same vocal dexterity – not to mention flawlessly performing an extremely wordy song that has to be sung at speed.
Dempsey wouldn’t have made much money out of a NZ tour and could’ve spent the time doing much more lucrative gigs elsewhere. Also NZ Customs fined him $400 when they found a lemon in his suitcase. It’s a mark of the man’s integrity and his commitment to his craft (and his people, “the plain people of Ireland” as they say) that he came and he played here. I can’t say he conquered, because the audience at the Dux were Damo’s people already. But the craic was great and for $40 it was great value too. Go raibh maith agat, Damo! Beir bua!
Tonight (Friday, March 28), Damo is playing in Dunedin (Coronation Hall, Maori Hill) and on Saturday night he plays the Munster Inn in Auckland. This is from a Dublin gig, but (minus the band and some of the audience size) this is similar to what it was like last night at the Dux: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sk1Nz6McGxk