Album of the Year – 2006: Damien Dempsey, Live at the Olympia
Damien Dempsey is an Irish songwriter/singer/guitarist who is currently not well known in the US. The traditional “Irish” music that’s popular in the faux-Irish bars in the US ain’t his thing. Instead he does socially conscious tunes that are uncompromising in their condemnation of greed, ongoing colonial mindsets, and neglect of the underprivileged while celebrating belief in yourself and an adamant refusal to submit to the second-class status that the rich would prefer we accept without comment. Dempsey is a major star in Ireland and one of the things that endears him to his Irish audience is that he doesn’t adopt an “American” or “British” accent or vocabulary but sings as he, and his home audience, talks.
Dempsey has four studio albums. “Seize the Day” and “Shots” have both been released in the US and are both excellent. “Shots” entered the Irish record charts at #1.”To Hell or Barbados” has also been released in the US. “They Don’t Teach This Shit in School”, his first album, was released on a small label and rereleased when he became a major star in Ireland. Not released in the US, it’s markedly weaker than the other two and is probably only for committed fans. And then there’s “Live at the Olympia” recorded at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre and our album of the year for 2006.
“Live at the Olympia” may be the best live album I’ve ever heard. Not because the playing reaches the transcendent heights that happen, rarely, at a live gig but because the blending of the audience and the musicians into a seamless unit is unlike anything I’ve heard recorded or experienced at a concert. A couple of years ago my wife and I, who are avid cyclists, spent about 10 days in Ireland’s County Donegal on a bike tour where we’d ride 50 to 100 miles a day and stop at a different place each night. In all the towns we stayed in we experienced one constant – at night people would come out to their local pubs where someone would usually show up with a guitar and the crowd would spend the evening listening and singing. Teenagers, young singles and couples, moms and dads, grandparents, everyone did this together. Ireland seemed to be a country where public singing was as ordinary as fast food in the US.
Now imagine a sold-out opera house with several balconies and small premier box seat areas packed with an audience that is practiced and comfortable with singing in public, loves the artist, and knows every word of every song. About two thousand voices strong, the audience sang like angels and Dempsey and his band matched them note for note. Six mikes were placed in the crowd and no overdubs were used on the album. Sound travels at approximately 344 meters per second which is fast but not fast enough to avoid a noticeable time lag between singing or rhythmic clapping from an audience in a large venue and the band. Dempsey’s band was obviously comfortable playing with a singing audience because they timed their playing perfectly. Not an easy thing to do. Dempsey is a very powerful and charismatic stage presence (I saw him play in a small club in Vienna VA last October) and he was spot on for this gig.
But the story here is the audience. They lift what would have been a first-rate live album to something extraordinary. They rocked the house and they simply would not go home. Although I’ve listened to the album many, many times there are moments that still raise the hairs on the back of my neck and make me stop whatever I’m doing at the moment to listen. God, I wish I had been there.
Unfortunately, “Live at the Olympia” has not been released in the US as of this writing. Dempsey’s album “Shots” has been released in multiple configurations in different countries and I think the latest version released in the US has a couple of live tracks from the Olympia gig tacked on to the end. Of course, it’s much better to listen to the gig as a whole than to hear tracks taken out of sequence and context but if you don’t want to pay for an import you can get a taste. The album can be purchased at cduniverse.com (usually substantially cheaper than e.g., Amazon.com for imports).
Music from this concert can be heard on Tuned In To Music Podcast 004 – Live, In Concert
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