Live Review: David Keenan, Islington Assembly Hall, 23rd November 2021

Like so many of his musical touring peers, Keenan has had to spend over a year in gigging no man’s land and he cannot hide his joy and relief to finally be on the road and up before a live audience again. Tonight he has some 500 filling the venue on what is London’s coldest night of this autumn. Many of them have majored on his two albums, with the latest ‘What then?’ just recently released although having been largely written pre pandemic. There are a lot of 20 and 30 something’s on the floor and Keenan shows his delight in spearheading what is his first London show with a full and tight backing band. They are Dylan Lynch on drums; Lughaidh Armstrong Mayock on guitar; Connor Cunningham on bass; with Harry Hoban handling the keyboard.

The musical influences are diverse. There’s the Irish wordy raconteur element, but with much else beside. There’s indie rock, pop rock, folk rock and it’s probably fair to say that the melee is towards the margins of Americana as we usually understand it. There seemed to be a Buddy Holly vibe to ‘Beggar to Beggar’ while on some songs, REM late 1980s came to mind. At times Keenan plays around with the pacing of his vocal delivery, reminiscent of the likes of Dylan, Stipe or Mike Scott, though occasionally, with the full force of the band being brought to bear, this covers up the lyrical clarity.

He’s had a somewhat itinerant lifestyle since leaving Dundalk in his late teens, taking in Liverpool, Paris and Dublin, three cities not short of cultural and artistic heft. With these settings contributing to his muse, it’s no surprise that there is a Samuel Becket name check or two through the lyrics. And various songs draw on vignettes from such cities, peering into the lives of the relatively marginalised and dispossessed, often set in clubs and bars. The song titles themselves show how the seamy side of human experience is a regular source that Keenan draws on.

‘Peter O Toole’s Drinking Stories’ is the evocative opener, the narrative of a man discovering his poetic muse in seedy bars setting the thematic framework for much of Keenan’s work. The words are set around a fulsome guitar load – and the line of “’I’m a six week premature ejaculation’” is always going to catch people’s attention. ‘Unholy Ghosts’ is a standout, a stripped down ballad looking back over a family history, conjuring up the greying imagery of a declining port town at the end of the industrial era.

‘Altar Wine’ marks a shift in the set as Keenan delivers this solo, on the piano, and follows up with two solo acoustic songs ‘Postcards from Catalonia’, and ‘Lawrence of Arcadia’, which features the “‘Last know bar stool prophet/To retire early from the trade”’. ‘Philomena’ is another swirling highlight, for which the full band re-emerge, and is a really well crafted yet spare ballad, named as a tribute to his grandmother. ‘The Grave of Johnny Filth’ is perhaps the most overtly wordy song, extensive and menacing polysyllabic lyrics on the murky side of life, sung-spoken over languorous guitars. It’s a memorable and powerful piece. ‘Hopeful Dystopia’ follows and continues the theme of, broadly, hardship and loss. “Where is the fake Francis Bacon triptych you said you owned,”’ must be one of 2021’s most striking final lines, in any musical category.

There is a brief but haunting Gaelic snippet of song delivered acapella before heading into the anthemic grandiose ‘Evidence of Living’, one of a clutch of closing songs with big choruses tailor made for audience engagement, with Keenan soaking up the moment and completing an energetic nigh-on1 and three quarter hours on stage.

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