Dermot Kennedy At The Sugar Club – Review
In the modern quick-fire success culture, the idea of an artist growing, refining their sound and developing their art at their own pace almost seems like a quaint throwback to the music industry’s lucrative 1980’s heyday. A modern ‘word of mouth’ success story, racking up millions of online streams without much in the way of radio play or traditional media exposure, Dublin singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy recently unveiled the first results of a brand new sound with two cuts from his forthcoming debut EP Doves And Ravens; and with dense instrumentation and an ultra-modern production style the new material showcased a clear progression from the singer’s traditional folk background over the past few years, having also briefly fronted atmospheric indie collective Shadows and Dust.
Arriving on stage in low-key fashion and taking a seat at the piano for an emotionally charged rendition of ‘An Evening I Will Not Forget’. The almost spoken word intro gives way to a passionate and intense middle section which raises hairs on the back of one’s neck and in truth they never really go down again over the ensuing 45 minutes. A beautifully sparse piano and vocal cover of Frank Ocean’s ‘Swim Good’ fits in seamlessly and hints at a diverse array of influences. With only a small handful of songs commercially available over the past few years, most of which are firmly rooted in the folk/singer-songwriter genre, the forthcoming EP serves as something of an early career reinvention. With each of it’s four tracks given an airing tonight, it showcases a genre-fusing quality which utilises the melancholic side of folk music while experimenting with the sonic textures and beats of modern hip-hop. This fusion is best highlighted on recent single ‘A Closeness’, opening with finger-picked acoustic guitar before the rhythm sections takes on a pivotal role with a big hip-hop friendly beat, aided by minimalist keyboard flourishes. One of the most alluring elements of Kennedy’s music is the quality of the lyrics. A natural wordsmith, his poetic turn of phrase is as crucial to the songs as the melody (“Got a thought for those who think of love as the pursuit of a fool, it’s a palace from ruin”).
Another new song ‘Boston’ is more stripped back in nature yet still makes use of original rhythmic ideas. With production duties handled by Carey Willets, bassist with London indie rockers Athlete, the influence of the British band’s experimental Beyond The Neighbourhood album looms large, evinced by a selection of quirky percussion styles (typewriter click sounds and layered vocal samples), while the colossal EP track ‘Glory’, wields a power that stuns the packed room into hushed silence.
The stylistic differences between the old and new material are notable. Closing number ‘After Rain’ bears all the folk hallmarks of Glen Hansard (an early supporter of the singer) while ‘Shelter’ has been given a modern touch with an exhilarating drum and bass outro recalling the extended trance coda of David Gray’s classic ‘Please Forgive Me’. Another distinctive quality in much of tonight’s material is the unique style of song structure, showing a healthy non-reliance on traditional arrangements, moving in linear fashion telling a story from beginning to end without conforming to generic verse-chorus-verse structures.
Judging by the new material aired tonight, it’s not hyperbolic to suggest Dermot Kennedy is helping move the singer-songwriter genre forward with a fearless approach to sonic experimentation in a similar vein to Bon Iver, the last artist to meld progressive hip-hop techniques with traditional folk values so effectively.
Leaving the stage after a tantalising 9-song set, the lights go up on what was a genuine contender for Irish gig of the year, and while an abundance of global superstars are due to visit Dublin over the coming months, it will take something very special to top tonight’s exceptional show from one of Ireland’s most outstanding new talents.