Damien Rice is supposed to be, by all accounts, a singer-songwriter—nothing more, nothing less. Sure, his record is probably the best of the genre released in the States this year, but live, it’s usually a laidback affair when it comes to these guys. On the opening night of his most recent U.S. trek, anticipation of soft strumming, poignant lyrics and mellow moments was high, as was a bit of disappointment that Lisa Hannigan, whose vocals throughout O provide the perfect balance to Rice’s yearnings, wasn’t going to make the trip for this leg of the tour.
For over a year now though, Damien Rice has completely defied any expectations placed upon him. He’s got a record out on an independent label, no radio airplay except towards the far left of the dial, and yet, he sells out an entire stateside jaunt, and on this night, he put on the greatest rock and roll show that the Theater of Living Arts has seen since the Afghan Whigs blew the doors off in 1999.
“The Professor” began things light-heartedly enough, as Rice sang about a “dick made of wood,” and spoke in a stoned-out tone relating to a lyric about weed, eliciting many laughs from the sold out crowd. Then he hit one of the many effects pedals on his acoustic guitar, ignited the song into rocked out overdrive, leaving the audience in complete shock. By the time the Rice brought things back down into an imitation of a drunken Frenchman, it was apparent that this was not going to be your typical Ryan Adams-type show. Taking nothing away from the studio versions, Hannigan wasn’t missed greatly, as her parts were improvised over or simply sung by Rice.
The music wove back and forth between extremes all night, constantly keeping those in attendance on guard. “Cold Water”, one of the deepest and most powerful tracks from O, began after a request from Rice to turn the lights completely off was met. In the quiet and eerie darkness of the TLA, the focus was solely on the words, until, as the song ascended, the stage lights blasted on at their brightest, aimed directly at the crowd, blinding them. It was an experience like no other, as the sense of sight was paralyzed until the lights slowly dimmed and the music quietly descended. Then, when it seemed nothing could be more intense, Rice went into a jaw dropping Buckley-esque version of “Halleluiah”.
These simple but effective theatrics dotted other songs. As “Cheers Darlin’” wound down, Rice drew long on a bottle of Sierra Nevada to punctuate each line, taking the role of the character of the piece (ostensibly Rice himself), who becomes more drunk with each thought of the girl he loves in the arms of someone else. The most effective tool though, other than the multitude of pedals at his feet, was the distortion microphone, which was slotted along with the regular one, allowing Rice to switch effortlessly between simple singing to a fuzzed out scream.
More than simple supporting cast, the rest of the band shone right along with Rice. Vyvienne Long, ravishing in a flowing white dress that seemed one with her long blonde hair, demurely played cello, until the rest of the band walked off for a quick break, whereupon she did a furiously paced version of “Purple Haze” that enthralled as much as it drew laughs of amazement.
Drummer Tomo, lightly brushing the snare or rapping his fingertips ever so slightly across the cymbals, atmospherically created a place inside of the subdued sequences of the songs, while he sat to the right front of the stage, as opposed to the rear. His accompanying vocals didn’t quite make up for Hannigan being missing, but they lent a surprising depth to the songs, freeing Rice up to either rock out or play with the vocals. Tomo has such a rapport with Rice, that when he is flailing away during the heaviest parts, the two of them, eyes locked intently, look as if they are going to leap at each other. Rice does a better Thom Yorke than Thom Yorke does these days, convulsing and contorting his reed-like body until it is one with his guitar; frenzied movements like these led him to smash the neck of it into Tomo’s cymbals over and over again on “Face”.
In juxtaposition with the rest of the night, Rice then calmly tuned his guitar, offhandedly noting that it was a necessary result of “that thing over there,” cocking his head towards Tomo and the recovering cymbal. He then took to the very lip of the stage, sans microphone, and sang the first half of “Eskimo”, before spearheading another sonic explosion and ambling off the stage.
When the encore began, Rice let on that the Sierra Nevadas were beginning to take effect.
“I’m pissed,” he started before taking it back. “Well, not pissed, but pretty fucking merry! I don’t even feel like I’m at a gig anymore—I’m just like… whatever.”
He then told a story about a man he met before the show, who was hanging outside of the back door of the TLA all day. It turned out that it was a security guard for the venue, a six-foot-something, close to 300 pound African-American guy named “Bear” whom Damien wanted to have join him onstage for a rendition of “Stand By Me”. Bear was reluctant, and other than the chorus he didn’t really know the words, mostly adding the last line of each verse, but was amazing nonetheless, providing such a bellowing vocal contrast to the earnestness of Rice. It was one of those magical moments, a feeling that you were witnessing something special, akin to when Jack White walked out onstage during the Strokes’ encore at Radio City Music Hall last year for “New York City Cops” to lay down a blistering solo. It couldn’t be recreated, and if it were, it would never have the same effect as when it happened the first time.
A deafening applause followed the exit of Bear and the shy minstrel he brought with him, but Rice refused to leave the stage. “We should’ve walked off right now, end on a high note…but I have no sense of what’s good right now,” he said. “At this point, we should leave you wanting more, come see us next time, thank you very much, have a good night…but we’re not stopping. You can go home if you want. The gig is over. If you are reviewing the show—stop. This is not part of the show. We’re just not going to leave the stage.”
After another Leonard Cohen cover, a bit of Radiohead’s “Creep”, and a couple more songs from O, nearly three hours had passed. The audience was left dazed, depleted and wanting more. The idea of a sullen and hushed toned singer songwriter show be damned—Damien Rice is spectacularly not of that vein, at least not anymore.