Review: Damien Dempsey, To Hell or Barbados
Damien Dempsey’s previous CD, the “Live at the Olympia Theatre” is the best live album I’ve heard and was the motivation for starting this blog last January. I also think Dempsey’s two CDs before that, “Shots” and “Seize the Day” are terrific. For my birthday last summer my wife chased down info about when Dempsey was going to be in the US (he’s Irish) and playing in our area around Washington DC. She called the local venue to get tickets they day the gig was announced in Ireland, so soon in fact that the place had no idea who he is or that he’d been booked. After months of eager waiting we went to the gig, got there much too early to be sure we got good seats, and found that only about 12 people came out to see him. And Dempsey was just great. He refused to let the small turnout bother him and gave us a fine show and me a wonderful birthday present.
So it is with some sadness that I find Dempsey’s most recent CD “To Hell or Barbados” to be a bit of a disappointment. Not a huge one, but it’s not quite up to the level of his previous CDs. The album starts off very strongly with “Masai” which beautifully evokes the fierce warriors it honors. Demsey has the kind of power as a singer that can stop you dead in your tracks and make you listen. That power is put to great use on “Masai”. It’s a brilliant and unique song, I can’t think of any others like it, and, at least for me, it alone is worth the price of the CD. From there, however, things tail off. The CD title “To Hell or Barbados” is taken from a book of the same name by Sean O’Callaghan which details the selling into slavery in Barbados and Virginia of over 50,000 Irish men, women and children between 1652 and 1659 by the English. The title track is the penultimate track on the album but by then there’s been too many slow starting, mid-tempo, ting-a-ling acoustic guitar driven tunes that lead to big endings for yet another one to have the desired effect. In general, the CD suffers from too little variety. With the notable exception of “Masai” nothing really stands out until we get to the last track, “The City”, which was co-written by Dempsey and the Drummer (John Reynolds) and bass player (Clare Kenny) in his group. It has a refreshingly different sound.
“To Hell and Barbados” is not a bad album, far from it, and I’ve found it grows with repeated listens. Dempsey has great talents as a songwriter and singer, he writes songs of uncompromising moral outrage against social, political and economic injustice, and he sings those songs with enormous power and conviction. All of that’s happening on “To Hell or Barbados”, just not to the consistent level he’s achieved on his previous CDs. A small step back, then.
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