On a wet and windy night in Cardiff on March 13th, Irish singer-songwriter, David Keenan, gave an intimate performance in Clwb Ifor Bach situated in the city centre on Womanby Street, a live music venue which hosts international, local and emerging artists and has featured some of the biggest names in music in their early years.
The atmosphere in the club perfectly accompanied the poetic and melodic sound of the young Dundalk-born musician as he played to a small crowd of fifty or so people. “Unless you’re playing cards at the back come to the front and dance” he uttered to encourage everybody to come close and add to the intimate atmosphere. Little did I know I was in for something quite special.
Keenan is on a European wide tour, showcasing his debut album – A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO BRAVERY which came out at the beginning of the year, the intention of which, says Keenan, was to……..
“retain all the rawness and vulnerability, madness and unfiltered truths that make me who I am. A collaboration between chaos and calm in a world where the same laws do not apply. It gifted me healing and hope and a sense of renewal.”
Everybody in the audience on Friday night was enchanted by the somewhat stereotypical (at least looks-wise) Irish artist, and were not disappointed by renditions of some of his better-known songs. He has amassed a certain following as people were dancing, clapping and singing along, knowing the words and asking him to play songs like “Evidence of Living” and “Unholy Ghosts” in which he invokes the past, and paints vivid and distinctive stories with his almost poetry-prose lyrics-for example, the piano in the pub “manned by a drunkard who is dripping with poetry, sitting stupefied, nailed to the stool” in Unholy Ghosts, and the “chimneys of steam emanate from the gutter” in Evidence of Living.
Personally, I had only recently heard about Keenan and was certainly not disappointed by his storytelling of Irish culture and his alt-folk sound. I managed to garner the opinion of other newcomers like me and they thought the same. He also gave us a sneak peek at one of his new songs “Cough Bottle”, which seems time appropriate in our current pandemic constrained world, since it is about his grandad’s cure-all remedy, (if only!).
David Keenan has been busy supporting fellow countryman, Hozier back in 2019, and now with the release of his new album he is now the headliner. His supporting acts on Friday evening were Finn & the Jacques and Ell South who effectively played their part in invigorating the crowd with their glam rock and folk frenzy, warming us up and kickstarting the evening. Keenan is apt to sing about his family, and life in his homeland, such as in “Altar Wine” where he describes the trauma woven by the Catholic Church, or in “Love in a Snug” where he gives us a great image of wandering into a typical Irish pub. To highlight his love for his family; on the night of the gig, he had his younger brother run a small merchandise stand in the corner where you could buy t-shirts, CDs and records.
While the young Irishman can really captivate you through his thoughtful (though at times overly dramatic) lyrics, I didn’t feel the melodies were truly distinctive with most songs building to a crescendo before diminishing again, although I am perhaps being a little picky. However, his lyrics lingered with me for the rest of the evening as I tried to figure out the meaning behind them. His sound reminds me of artists like Jeff Buckley or even Nick Drake; however, David Keenan’s hard to miss Irish accent gives him a unique and original voice.
In all, it made for a fun evening and I am excited to see what else he has in store. I urge you to give him a listen if you haven’t already, and if you get the chance to see him live, then even better. David Keenan is definitely going to stay on our radar!
A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO BRAVERY was recorded at Hellfire Studios in the Dublin Mountains, a place I don’t know at all, but judging by the result, it’s a pretty inspiring setting to record. Incidentally, the albums chalks up almost an hour, so good on David for that.
When David puts pen to paper, and sets his words to music, the everyday becomes the extraordinary. Take Barrack Street in his hometown of Dundalk. It’s an unremarkable little place, rows of terraced houses lining either side. Its pair of pubs have closed now, to be redeveloped into the inevitable flats. It’s the kind of street where nothing ever happens.
But not in the imagination of David. His Barrack Street, he sings in Good Old Days, is a place where the events of domestic life become a fairy story, “where the sailors all come in to greet their families”, where people gather in “the picture house where the navies and the banshees roam”. It’s a place, like his music, where past and present and future come together in a reverie of truth, poetry and fantasy. Maybe David isn’t going to be the sort of guy you instantly relate to, but if you want to have the epic sweep of Van Morrison, the high notes of Tim Buckley, and the soul of Samuel Beckett, then David is very much your man.
“I’ve always understood that music, language, prose and poetry transcend modernity or any kind of time. I don’t attach myself to this period, or any past, present or future. Through the relationship with art and language I grew closer to my true self.”
“The album is an embodiment of all that. Just trying to, through creative catharsis, self-educate and sculpt an inner world that become your outer world.”
David’s story is typical in the quest to find his voice. Nine years ago, when he was 17 and on the dole after doing a computer course, he packed up and left Dundalk and went to Liverpool. He disappeared – it was two weeks before he went to a phone box and called his mother and told her he was alive and he was in Liverpool and she wasn’t to worry – and he was on the trail of the disappeared.
This is where David’ story becomes – well, shall we go with unusual. He’d gone to Liverpool to find Lee Mavers, the elusive singer of The La’s.
“The La’s opened up a new world of tuning your guitar to the hum of an electric fridge. It was like holy music, holistic. I stumbled upon them. I found this blog called Diaries of a Rock’n’Dole Star. That’s all that I needed. This guy went to Liverpool and spent his grant money on tracking down The Stairs and Shack. And I had to go. I had never been out of Dundalk before. But I’d read all the books. I’d read Kerouac and I needed to escape. Dundalk was grey brick upon grey brick.”
“My imagination needed to go and explore. So I got a one-way ticket on the ferry. I didn’t find Lee Mavers but I found some members of the band. I found Barry Sutton and Cammy from the La’s, and I did support John Power eventually. But it was an incredible experience. It broke down all the shyness barriers, because I had to play to eat.”
Fast forward a few years and all these threads are knitted together in David’s album. A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO BRAVERY. Experiences which feed into a record that is rich and ripe and romantic – not in the sense of him being a lothario, but in his connections to the Romantics and their cherishing of intense emotion and individualism; Wordsworth’s demand that poetry be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” could have been written for David.
Tin Pan Alley (below) is something really special.
‘Tin Pan Alley’ came to me many moons ago. In a foreign flat, the thoughts of my daily reprieves flooding my head. Namely, walking the streets of London in the pissing rain, absorbed by the narrow cobbled streets whose only purpose it seemed to me was to lead a man to another point of bewildered fascination.“
“The atmosphere thickened at night and from the cigarette smoke and fog came wordsmiths and melody men whose names had long since been lost, save for a yellowed newspaper article I’d found in a drawer of my digs, interminably waiting for a God or a Godot or a lost lover to dance that last slow dance before the sun woke up. That’s what I was seeing as the song revealed itself. That’s what I see now, except the faces have changed. I was alone in reality, but in the song I was not.”
His album, A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO BRAVERY is out now and you can order that, and find out what else David is up to, right HERE.