Sunday, 12 February 2017

Live: David Keenan @ Whelan's with Stephen James Smith & LemonCello

David Keenan Whelan's Remy Connolly

All photos: Remy Connolly

Info: There's a lot of things happening on the horizon for Dundalk musician David Keenan. 2017 is set to be the busiest year he has faced yet since he decided to immerse himself full-time in his music, that is, in putting it out there, as he has self-admittedly always been surrounded by his art, both absorbing it and creating it. 2016 saw support slots with Glen Hansard at Vicar Street (The Frames had previously called him onto the stage back in 2015 at The Spirit Store and provided accompaniment to his own song 'Matchbox' on that occasion), along with a plethora of live dates and festival appearances.

With a full armament of original songs in his repertoire, it's incredible to think that he has built up such a reputation, with many respected admirers in Irish music and supporters such as Damien Dempsey (who said; "David has it all, voice, guitar playing, lyrics, hes a master of all three, growing like a wildflower, sublime"), without officially releasing any material. That is all about to change however, which is what will make 2017 a year to celebrate for the young 23-year-old troubadour with an old head on his shoulders, a debut album and single and video releases are planned over the course of the next 12 months, and personally I'm excited to see the reaction as it unfolds.

LemonCello Remy Connolly

The night kicked-off with alt-folk duo LemonCello (Laura Quirke - vocals, guitar / Claire Kinsella - cello) accompanied by harpist Alannah Thornburgh. With the upstairs venue in Whelan's already packed, the trio provided a set of songs that was both soothing for the soul, and impeccably performed on their respective instruments. It was beautiful, and Quirke's vocals were notably powerful when called upon, although I'm a sucker for strings on any occasion, here LemonCello gave a highly enjoyable performance, all at ease and delivering a sound that was so impressive.

LemonCello Whelan's Remy Connolly

Up next was a man at the forefront of the Irish spoken-word and poetry revival, a seanchaí for the next generation, Stephen James Smith. The power and emotion he delivers in his live performances is tempered by the nonchalance toward himself, exemplified with his last poem about modern Ireland, have we come a long way? Not really. We're still battling the vestiges and hangovers of our past more than ever. After a highly charged deliverance of what was part-critique and part-observance of the state of the nation, and to rapturous applause, I couldn't help but smile when Smith flippantly said 'Thanks' into the microphone before departing the stage. 

Stephen James Smith Remy Connolly 1

As he said himself, one of his main purposes is to help revive an interest in poetry, "Most of you probably hated it in school, I did", he shared, "but hopefully after tonight you'll get back into it,'ll decide forever more you'll never go near it again". It's clear that observable injustices and unintended comic experience are what inspire Smith's poetry, with personal favourites of mine, which always tug at my emotions, being 'The Gardener' and of course, 'Dublin', both of which have made me well up on more than one occasion. 

Stephen James Smith Remy Connolly

And so it came time for David Keenan to take the stage, this would be my third time seeing David live, the last only being a couple of weeks ago when he performed on the main stage as part of Whelan's Ones To Watch, the first a number of months ago at The Grand Social when he opened for Finley Quaye. Until that night back in September, 2016, I hadn't come across David's music before, and I often think, that if for some reason I hadn't been able to make it on that evening, I still may have never seen him perform today. Of course, you could say the same for many acts you don't get to see, but it's particularly relevant to me personally due to Keenan's talent and the impact his performances have on me as a music fan.

David Keenan Whelan's

With such an array of musical talent in Ireland at the moment, and so many acts crossing multiple genres, I've found myself being constantly wowed over the last few years, with no fear that the well is about to run dry, in fact, it's the opposite, which has even surprised me myself, the trajectory continues to get steeper and steeper. In such a joyous environment to observe, it's difficult for any one individual or band to stand out, though many do, I think of Bitch Falcon in hard rock, Bantum in electronic music, Naoise Roo in alternative rock, 5th Element in hip-hop and rap, and Rocstrong in alternative pop, off the top of my head, there are many more. 

David Keenan Whelan's Remy Connolly

The only magic I believe in though, is the magic of music, it, like all other art forms, seems transcendental when it comes to how it reaches into your soul. For me David Keenan has quickly become one of those artists that comes along too rarely, I am being effusive in my praise here, I acknowledge that, but I don't think I'll be repeating myself like this again for quite some time so indulge me. You don't hear Keenan's guitar, voice, lyrics, or see his presence in isolation, they all meld into one. Some things come with practice, and some things are innate, genetic, hard-wired. 

David Keenan

Stephen James Smith rightly noted on the night that David was not only a song-writer who wrote lyrics to go with his music, but a poet, and this is a most accurate description of how he crafts his songs. Every one of them has a story, and because the story had such an impact on the artist, it is easily transferable to the audience. Songs such as 'Matchbox', about when he was coming up the stairs in his grandparent's house, and saw his grandfather with all of the items from his Jameson whiskey tin box laid out on the bed, photos and memoirs of his family, grandchildren, moments and memories. As Keenan looked through the crack in the door, it dawned on him for the first time that his grandfather was old, and that maybe at the very same moment, his grandfather was realising the exact same thing, that tin box, as Keenan mentioned, was like another world when you opened it and went inside, a Tír na n-Óg.

'Beggar To Beggar' relates to his chance encounter with two homeless men he encountered while he lived in Liverpool, conversations, listening, stories, a pair who ended up becoming his friends. He has a deep affection for strangers, and conversing with them, learning their stories, hearing their experiences, greater than any fiction, and then relating them to his music. Inspired by the magic of everyday encounters, that most of us neglect or never have, or have become adverse to due to distrust. Meaningful words are all well and good, but it's their delivery that counts, and the music that they are put to, David Keenan is a master of all three, Damien Dempsey hit the nail on the head. For his last song, he left the stage and went right into the middle of the audience, and not for the first time on the night, asked us to join in with him, it was all more for us than for him, and for the second time in a few weeks, Keenan left to massive applause and a standing ovation, 2017 is going to be most interesting.

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