Review: Damien Rice at the Apollo Theater

“Thank you for coming back!”

A lone voice called out during a small pause between songs at Damien Rice’s sold out performance at the Apollo Theater Saturday night.  The Irish singer-songwriter paused, and smiled ruefully, and finally responded, “thank you for coming back.”  Rice was right to be grateful for the loyalty of his fans, who have endured an eight year hiatus between Rice’s 2006 album, 9, and My Favourite Faded Fantasy, released this October.  Aside from a few tracks on charity albums, a bizarre appearance at a Haiti benefit in 2012, and an unusually revealing interview concerning the disintegration of his band and his relationship with girlfriend and collaborator Lisa Hannigan, Rice seemed to be destined to become another one’s of rock’s famous recluses.  When asked how he spent the intervening years, Rice admits to doing a bit of sailing off the coast of Ireland, but mostly gives opaque answers about “cleansing” his mind, which might just mean therapy.  From the lyrics of My Favourite Faded Fantasy, it certainly seems that Rice has managed to seek and find forgiveness from those around him, and, perhaps most importantly, from himself.

Always uneasy with commercial success, to the point of quitting his first band, Juniper, after its first singles received favorable reviews, Rice famously imploded after his first album, O, achieved multiplatinum sales.  He then refused to grant any interviews to promote its follow up, 9, fired Hannigan in the middle of a tour, and promptly disappeared for eight years.  Needless to say, one of the biggest surprises of Saturday’s performance was how much Rice seemed to enjoy meeting his audience again and sharing his songs with them.  From cheerful banter about the number of bathroom breaks audiences require to insisting that he was much happier than his songs would indicate, Rice launched into long discourses about the meanings of his songs, and his journey to self-acceptance. But he remained ornery enough to ask the Apollo Theater staff to turn off the lighted advertisements in the back of the venue, which he found to be such an eyesore that he threatened to perform the rest of the concert with his eyes closed.

What has not changed about Damien Rice is his ability to infuse the frequently mellow singer-songwriter genre with a muscular intensity that usually only comes with pyrotechnics and electric guitar solos.  Performing under a single spotlight, and armed with an acoustic guitar (and a few loop pedals, to be fair), Rice managed to fill the venerable venue with soaring renditions of many of his classic songs, including “9 Crimes,” “Cannonball,” “Volcano,” and “The Blower’s Daughter,” as well as half of the eight tracks on My Favourite Faded Fantasy.

Recorded largely in Iceland, My Favourite Faded Fantasy, has the swirling otherworldliness that characterizes the work of Sigur Rós, in whose Reykjavik studio Rice completed the album.  Translated to the stage on Saturday night, however, Rice imbued the same songs with a searing desperation that revealed a bit of the man who struggled so famously with fame, relationships, and simply being himself.  The harder task for Rice will always be to present the songs that featured Lisa Hannigan, as the ethereal waif-like foil to his gritty, raw masculinity.  Yet, his solo rendition of “9 Crimes” managed to reinvent the song as a haunting confession of betrayal, rather than the dialogue it had been.

However, Rice did not completely eschew company onstage.  He was joined by percussionist Shahzad Ismaily and a singer simply introduced as Ismaily’s friend who lent her vocals to Hannigan’s part in “Volcano,” which ended in a three-part audience sing-a-long.  Ismaily accompanied Rice for a few tracks, and both were joined by a local choir and bodhrán player Rónán Ó Snodaigh of Irish folk band Kíla for an epic rendition of “Trusty and True” to close out the show.

One suspects that, as someone who has revealed so much of his innermost feelings to the world in his music, Damien Rice developed a prickly exterior to protect himself from the demands of success.  This time, however, it seems that he is ready to admit that he missed us just as much as we missed him.  Let’s just hope he doesn’t pull another disappearing act anytime soon.

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