Very few musicians can capture and maintain the attention of an audience of 2,000 people with just a guitar and a voice for two hours. Very few people can command that kind of respect in general. It takes serious songwriting and performing chops to pull it off. You have to be one of those musicians that are completely devoid of gimmicks. The moment you start to use tasteless theatrics and out-of-place stage effects you’ve lost the audience because they know that you aren’t confident enough in your own ability to keep the audience’s attention based on the performance of your songs alone.
There are exceptions to the rule of course, and, in Damien Rice’s case, it was about halfway there. He came off as a performer who has been doing his thing for a long, long time, and he knew when to strip it down and when to build it up.
I walked into the Academy of Music, realizing I was completely out of my element in my Nike T-shirt and jeans. Most of the people were at least 35 years old and dressed for an extravagant evening out. But there were no judgmental glances because it seemed everyone was just excited to see Rice perform. We were unified by our appreciation for a great songwriter, and it didn’t matter how young or how old you were. This idea was reinforced by the friend I made sitting next to me in the front row — a 40-something-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate who had seen Rice perform 15 times before.
The show started and Rice’s voice came in over the speakers as the lights dimmed. He invited us to enjoy the entire experience of the concert and put all electronic devices away. It almost worked. None of us in the front row could resist taking a picture or video here and there, it was too surreal an experience to have him playing so close to us.
Rice started with a completely stripped down version of “My Favorite Faded Fantasy,” the title track of his latest album. This is a testament to the respect and attention he commanded as a performer, considering there were zero microphones involved. The audience was so dead quiet and focused on Rice and the acoustics of the room so perfect, that he didn’t need them. He sounded better than the record. Not a single missed note.
The crowd’s hearts filled with nostalgia as he shifted into “Delicate” for his next song. Just the same, it was pretty much perfect. You could tell how much his voice had improved since his first record as he hit the high notes with even less tension and more chord closure. The real surprise came when he hooked up not just an electric guitar but also a looping station for “It Takes A Lot to Know A Man.”
It was at the end of this song that stunned the audience the most. They came expecting a soft, sweet performance all the way through. With this song, Rice layered on so many samples that by the end of the song he had a full band sound booming the chorus throughout the halls of the academy. Most were shocked; some stood up and started clapping.
It occurred to me that Rice was so particular about his music and the way it should sound that he was probably a bit of a control freak. While that mostly results in incredible records and live performances that sound even more than perfect, it also means he might rather loop a drum track than just hire a drummer to play for him for one measly song. I don’t know why, but for me, it took away from a performance that potentially could have been mind-blowing. It felt like cheating after the precedent he has set as a performer for his entire career.
Damien then had a beautiful moment where he loosened up and explained himself in the middle of the show. He started talking to the audience more, and surprisingly, took a request for a song he used to play with his old band Juniper, “Wooden Horse.” At the end of the song he talked for a few minutes about how odd it was that he sometimes struggles to remember lyrics of his new songs and how naturally this decade old song came to him as he played it. As he talked more and more, he started opening up about how his last relationship ended, and how he tried very hard to control his girlfriend and mold her into the image he had of her in his mind. It all started to make sense as he made a segue into “Volcano,” perhaps right before the entire audience was going to request it any way.
My favorite moment of the concert came next when he came down to his knees on the stage, approximately three feet in front of me, and played “Trusty and True” on a harmonium. It seemed to be the most inspired and passionate piece of music he wrote for the album, and I think that’s why it was my favorite to begin with.
I don’t know what else to say other than if you get a chance to see Damien Rice perform, then you should absolutely take it. There is nothing else like it. He is just as good, if not better, than what you would expect.