Live Review: Damien Dempsey – Tales From The Holywell, Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 1st February 20

By his own admission Damien Dempsey is a bit like Marmite; well I admit to loving both, so that inevitably colours my opinion of Damo’s latest public offering, an 18-date run of a (kind of) one-man show in Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey, in Dublin.

I first met him four years ago when he walked into a bar in Dublin where I was performing. His first words to me were to tell me how much he enjoyed my song and how it filled his heart with joy. I didn’t doubt his sincerity for a moment and his remarks filled my own heart with joy. How could I fail to like the man after an introduction like that so don’t expect impartiality from me. That said, the standing ovation at the end of this two-hour show demonstrates that I’m not alone in this admiration of a man, adored in his own country and still largely unknown in the UK apart from the Irish diaspora.

Like his friend and comrade in arms Christy Moore, he is a journeyman rather than virtuoso guitar player and a singer who stylises his lyrics to reflect, and never hide, his north side Dublin upbringing. But what sets him apart from his contemporaries is the unquestionable and unerring heart and soul that he brings to each and every performance. A tall, broad-shouldered, former boxer, he commands the stage, or wherever he is, and demands the attention of his audience, aided tonight by Paul Keogan’s inventive stage design.

No stranger to repeated nights playing to sell-out crowds, be it Iveagh Gardens in summer or Vicar St, just before Christmas, this show is a marked departure from his usual fayre, but he has had no problem selling out all the dates of this run, with many who tried too late desperately trying to pick up returns.

It’s a kind of one-man show with Damo interspersing tales from his past with his own brand of philosophy, humorous anecdotes and song, ably assisted by a talented and tasteful band of fiddle, string bass and percussion – Lucia McPartlin, Aura Stone and Rod Quinn – ably led by Eamonn De Barra, piano. Directed by Conor McPherson whose beautifully observed play ‘The Weir’ just completed its own seven-week successful run at The Abbey, the staging works really well, utilising illuminated frames to psychologically separate Dempsey from the band when necessary, then lifting the frames out of sight when an ensemble enhances the musical delivery.

The show consists of two hour-long pieces (acts?) separated by a short interval and the pace and the music/monologue mix are well balanced throughout. Notwithstanding my already mentioned enjoyment of Damien Dempsey’s music, I found the show moving, entertaining and uplifting and a privilege to be able to witness.

The love in the room is palpable. The emotional bond between Damo and his audience, much in evidence in the 2022 film, ‘Love Yourself Today’ (available on Amazon Prime last time I looked) evokes a spirit rarely seen in the UK, but exemplified by people like Victor Jara in Chile and Manu Chao and Bob Marley in most of the western world, someone who speaks to, and for, the working people, the downtrodden, those struggling to survive against poverty, mental health, drug dependency and the ever-present oppression by the privileged classes. A true man of the people, if you get a chance to see him, take it, join in the inevitable sing song, feel your heart lift, you won’t regret it.

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