Stage Times: Damien Dempsey

The singer-songwriter discusses his weirdest and most wonderful gigs ahead of his Irish tour

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Damien Dempsey’s reggae-tinged Irish folk has always stood in a category of its own, since before he was recognised by Sinéad O’Connor as a fresh and vital entry into the Irish musical catalogue. Now, over 15 years on from the release of his debut single, Dempsey continues to approach every new project with urgency, eloquence, and great pride in his working class roots. Ahead of his upcoming tour, we journeyed back with Dempsey through his live performances, from his very first and his very biggest to his very best.

Damien Dempsey – Serious (Official Music Video)

The gig that made me want to play music

I went to Malahide – it’s a town north of Dublin – to see a man called Christy Moore. He’s an Irish folk singer and his songs are so powerful – he was so passionate. It looked like he had an aura around him. It was such a natural high. I thought, I would like to do that someday… just make people high through playing songs for them.

The first

I did a year’s course in Dublin, and my sound was the most unique there, because I was mixing all this traditional music with all the reggae sounds that I grew up with – Bob Marley with the Dubliners and the Wailers. They had a gig at the end of the year, and a few people played. When I got up, the whole college – there were about 150 people there – they all sang the songs that I’d written at the college. It was a rollercoaster. My first proper gig, the whole crowd sang along. I’ve been trying to keep up that momentum all these years!

Was your next gig underwhelming after that?!

It wasn’t as good as that, but I had the sort of songs that people seem to be able to sing along to easily. I was bitten by the bug after the first one, though – that show just gave me a real hunger to get 5,000 people singing all as one, in unison, and singing the sort of deep, meaningful lyrics that will help them along the road. When they do that, the vibration that’s created is just pure joy. It sends people out the door of a show on cloud nine. That’s my motivation. That’s what I want to do.

Damien Dempsey – Apple of My Eye (Live at Vicar Street)

The biggest

Supporting Bruce Springsteen in a big stadium in Kilkenny. I think that was the biggest. That was 50,000. It was crazy. I was ready, though. For years I was playing music and it was very, very hard for me to get up on stage. But I got to a place – I think it was in my mid-40s – where I stopped worrying so much. I just grabbed it by the horns. I couldn’t have done that at 25. I wouldn’t have been very good. But when the gig came around, I was ready. It took me a good few years to get confidence on stage. It didn’t come easy, but I have it now, thank god.

What helped you to gain that confidence?

I’m not too sure. I’ve been on a healing journey for a while, coping with trauma in my family. I was just building myself up for 10 years, getting more confidence and learning, practicing mindfulness and yoga, and just getting out into nature and meeting people. When I was touring around the world I was asking all sorts of people for their wisdom, and they were giving me these things to do, like “Get your shoes and socks off, and put your feet on the bare earth”. I learnt to treat myself better, to be kinder, to not beat myself up as much. You come to a good place then. You give yourself a home instead of a hutch.

The smallest

I’m pretty sure it was just me. Nobody came to the show. I think that was the smallest gig I’ve ever played.

Did you still play?

No, I think we just went home. But I’ve done two hours for five people before. People spend their hard earned money on tickets, taxis, maybe a babysitter, maybe a hotel, maybe a flight. If they’ve come to see me, I’ll play for them.

Damien Dempsey – Hope Calling (Official Lyric Video)

The Weirdest

I remember doing a gig down in the middle of Ireland. It was at the back of a farm – this fellow had put on a festival. When I came in, I saw the people doing security and… they weren’t suited for security. I was singing onstage and a fight broke out in the audience. I just saw the security guard running, and there was somebody chasing him. He was running around the venue, and somebody was chasing the security guard across this farm. I just thought that was funny.

The Best

It’s any show where someone comes up afterwards and says that album, or that song got them through a very bad time. It’s any show where people say something like that to you.

Damien Dempsey plays a number of Irish dates in 2024. See available tickets HERE.