- 06 Jun 19
David Keenan Raves On At A Secret Show For The Faithful. Pat Carty Gets Carried Away. Image: Glen Bollard.
“This is a song about a burlesque dancer from Finland living in Cambodia” That there is an introduction to prick up the ears of even the most feckless bar-chained muckibus. But then it’s impossible to ignore David Keenan, the young Dundalk singer/songwriter who seems to make greater artistic strides between each appearance. Tonight’s “secret” gig serves two purposes. Perhaps most importantly, it allows his excellent band The Unholy Ghosts to shake off the cobwebs of a period spent in the studio rather than on the stage, ahead of their big deal of an opening slot, getting the ball rolling for Snow Patrol – and, in a perfect world, that would very much be the other way around - this Friday out in Malahide Castle. And if that wasn’t enough, they take off around Europe with Hozier in August and September. They’re hardly likely to be club shows either.
The other reason for tonight’s show is to celebrate the completion of that long-awaited debut album, A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery, due sometime in August. Various Unholy Ghosts, and Keenan himself, drop a few hints in the bar later on. It’s set to be a double, constructed from the show’s blueprints, beginning with Keenan alone over his acoustic guitar, then with his raggle-taggle quartet The Organics, and then unleashing the full power of the Unholy Ghosts to finish. It’s an ambitious concept but then we should expect nothing less. Keenan was marked early on as being something apart from the seemingly endless and interchangeable line of acoustic guitar torturing troubadours that rose up like so much unstoppable knotweed, befouling the garden that the likes of Glen Hansard and Damien Dempsey had worked so hard to cultivate.
The Grand Social on Dublin’s Liffey Street Lower, a mere hurled pint glass from the Ha’penny Bridge, is the perfect setting for tonight’s gathering. There’s something very appropriate about the decorations, designed to resemble an old canvas circus tent. Keenan and his canny management have offered tickets to those who were quick to pre-order the album, so it’s his most ardent admirers who are in, alongside freeloaders like myself. And freeloading was what I was interested in, I had no plans to review anything apart from the bill o’ fare, but Keenan drags you in, even when you’re determined to remain outside. ‘Big Boys Must Cry’ introduces regular foil Gareth Quinn Redmond’s fiddle and when these two friends are in full flow – the fiddle soaring, the acoustic guitar taking a battering – it calls to mind Steve Wickham and Mike Scott at their untethered best, lost and free in music. For his dream of ‘James Dean’ alive and working for Irish Rail, he casts himself as “a poor wandering Beckett under a mother of pearl sky” and this is what an artist worth his salt should do; throw his wares against the wall of greatness and see what sticks. His confident pause mid-song is a spoil of experience.
“I need more from YIS!” and the crowd give it to him as he calls The Unholy Ghosts to the stage. Most people who keep half an ear to music already know who Gavin Glass and Graham Hopkins are. That they’ve chosen to give their talents to Keenan should say more about his abilities than I ever could. The band have grown into these songs too, for as good as they were the last few times I’ve stood in front of them, they have a subtle power tonight that wasn’t there before, whether it’s Harry Hoban’s Rhodes-like keyboard combining with Glass’ guitar for a rearranged ‘Altar Wine’ or Hopkins’ thump that drives ‘Good Old Days’. Keenan uses this as the solid foundation to build his entertainment upon – he’s beckoning us in with a “C’mere, C’MERE!”, he crouches the audience to the floor so they might hear his whispers clearer, he howls “Are we not DELIRIOUS?!?” in the manner of Russell Crowe’s Maximus asking the throng if they’re having a good time.
‘Love In A Snug’ is also altered, revealing shades of the Van Morrison who told us ‘And The Healing Has Begun’ The drums come in slowly, there’s hints of almost baritone guitar, and the fiddle heads for the sky. Keenan’s finishing “rain, rain, go away/fuck the fear!” takes off into Van’s Celtic soul free-form howling. “We’re all in this together” he swears as he asks the audience to join hands, the music reaching towards the freedom of The Waterboys’ version of Van’s ‘Sweet Thing’. Fuck the fear, and do it anyway. Were this from a lesser talent you might, quite rightly, cry out “Oh, what pitiful stuff!” but Keenan has it, whatever it is. Where he beckons, the audience follows. Where he’s going, you want to go too.
I’m unsure which artist he’s on about when he tells the story of Diana turning Actaeon into a stag for the sin of spying her performing her ablutions, only for the unfortunate fellow to be consumed by his own hounds - a case of Artemis foul-play, if you will. It might have been Hendrik van Balen, or perhaps Francesco Mazzola, or someone else I’ve barely heard of, although I do recall the tale from Ovid's Metamorphoses and my penitent cloister walks in the long ago. No matter, it’s the kind of subject matter that the ten-a-penny popular acts of the day wouldn’t even know about to avoid. The song, called ‘Origin’ I think, then borrows the bass line from Thin Lizzy’s ‘Renegade’ and plays it like the John Cale band at a particularly good wake. During ‘Evidence of Living’, Gentleman Harry Hoban’s keyboard - no, wait, I'm mistaken, it's handsome Gavin Glass - seems to take lend of the ascending "take-off" part from Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and then close out by copping a feel of ‘Life On Mars?’
Keenan’s world building again in ‘Matchbox’ with an old box of mass cards and birth certs, “raving for all the mood swings of the human condition” Rave on thy holy fool, down through the weeks of ages. It’s just Hoban and Keenan for ‘Tin Pan Alley’, the singer leaning on the mic stand like Saint Sebastian tree-bound by Diocletian’s men. I’m awoken from this sleep-deprived and possibly bacchanalian reverie by an elbow from Pat Rogers, Master Craftsman in Barbering. “Jaysus, you’re always writing, huh? Keenan is great but then anyone who comes from Dundalk is great!” He nods questioningly at my dangerously empty glass. Of course I’ll have a pint.
Back on the stage ‘Subliminal Dublinia’ has recast Ginsberg’s ‘America’ for the big smoke – “Dublinia, I love you, but you’re breaking my heart”, hoping, praying for a city where “no one dies of the cold and those fuckers reap what they sowed” a city to be occupied with original ideas. It’s a message to end on, Keenan leading his troupe, and the crowd, out the door, candle in hand, a Hamelin piper of the imagination.
Even if you’re not beguiled by his vision, you can’t help but smile at the showmanship.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations. How can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?