MUSIC REVIEW | Damien Rice nails it at Northrop Auditorium

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If there was a single line or moment that perfectly captured last night’s performance at the Northrop Auditorium, it was towards the end of the show when Damien Rice said with a smile after a particularly light-hearted moment, “We’re not supposed to be laughing, it’s a sad concert.”

Anyone with a particular interest in Rice’s music could likely see how a “sad concert” is what a Damien Rice show would be on the surface. There really aren’t a lot of upbeat tracks in the Rice collection, a collection overflowing with heartache and longing, the audial equivalent of a rainy day. Rice’s songs are raw, emotional, and terribly intense. They are beautiful, but they are rarely, if ever, “fun.”

It is a testament to Damien Rice’s strength as a performer, then, that for almost two straight hours he could work his way through those tracks, bringing to life that illusion of emotional openness that makes you believe that there is a man in terrible pain on the stage right in front of you, sharing something secret and personal, while also managing a wit and charm in between those tracks that allows a large audience to laugh along.

Rice’s musical performance throughout the night was fantastic, intense, beautiful, heartbreaking, the list can go on and on. While it seems there is much in music that loses something in the translation from recording to live performance, Rice’s songs are better live, are better with proximity to the performer. From “9 Crimes” to “Amie” to a very satisfying rendition of “Blower’s Daughter” in the encore, Rice was engaged and committed to every song, even after years of performing these tracks, they are still heavy, loaded with an emotional weight. And the crowd responded to Rice’s performance with remarkable gratitude after every track; there was real energy in the crowd last night, an almost indescribable sense of excitement that occasionally manifested in large groups of people that were desperately trying not to sing along but couldn’t help it.

Fun tip: If you ever want to experience a very, very weird sound, try being in a crowd with hundreds of people whisper-singing just slightly off-key, not wanting to ruin the performance but unable to help themselves from engaging in a sing-along. It’s an odd combination of distracting and charming.

Rice’s opening act, Galagalactica, is rather hard to describe. A musically talented duo, the pair opened the evening with a cello/guitar track like something straight off the soundtrack of a fantasy film or video game. It was a haunting sound, a little drawn out and perhaps too atmospheric for most tastes, but good. But then the vocalist set her cello down and started to sing a bit, and the sound felt like it went all over the place. Her vocals were this breathless combination of, say, Beth Gibbons of Portishead or Jennifer Charles of Lovage with the vocal intonations of Björk. Or perhaps it would be better to say she sounded like a heavily accented Julie Hagerty. Regardless, the performance of Galagalactica walked this line between something hauntingly beautiful and something unbearable and pretentiously artsy. There was an actual sense of elation from some folks when they finished; at least one person noted of their performance “well, to put it in midwestern terms, that was definitely ‘unique.’” For those who might be unfamiliar, that’s not a compliment.

Overall, the show was incredible. To say Rice came off as, say, “an old friend” would be an outright lie. But he was loose and charming and the performance did feel intimate and personal. Damien Rice felt not like an old friend, but a stranger you met at the pub or perhaps an event, a person you feel like you have crossed paths with before, with whom talk comes easily and the time passes quickly. His puckish demeanor is disarming and enchanting and more than enough to, along with his incredible music, carry an entire performance with just himself and a very minimal series of lighting effects. Rice nailed it on almost every level, giving the packed house at least what they paid for, if not more.

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