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Declan O'Rourke - Barbican Centre on Wednesday, 25 May 2005

Declan O’Rourke’s album was one I picked up after a couple of bland mentions on some other artist’s discussion list, and that album won ‘Best Debut Album’ in the Hot Press Readers’ Poll 2005. I have always taken chances on albums by general unknowns and often thus discover great things years before the rest of the world gives them sufficient recognition. In Declan’s case, whilst I wasn’t knocked senseless by his album, I felt I had purchased product created by an outstanding talent who, in a few years’ time, would be a substantial spirit with which to contend. But overall, the album seemed to disappoint, as after a wonderful start, it spiralled too deeply into goopy sentimentality. Perhaps it was the Tom Baxter effect, I’d thought—there was a talent whose album I had eagerly awaited, only to find the content buried in too many sickly layers of overproduction with vocals too focused on histrionics like an am-dram actor who sees subtlety as a stranger. See also Tal Bachmann.

But when I heard that my ticket to see the magnificent Paul Brady perform at the Barbican Centre would be a double dream in that I’d get to see O’Rourke as the support act, I dug out the album and, listening to those songs for the first time since their first play, I found them more appealing. They were all catchy and many were deeper than one would expect from someone so young (well, he seems 21 but he’s 29—young to me, someone nine years his senior), and he had an interesting method of occasionally mixing the Irish traditional method of singing with his soulful voice and more upbeat pop rhythms when he chose to step out of the pure pop or acoustic singer/songwriter genre from time to time. I savoured almost every song.

That probably says more about context and expectations than anything else. I had high hopes when I played the album the first time and was slightly underwhelmed but recognised his talent, whereas when I played it a few months later, I was expecting twee tripe so it was easier to be impressed.

Still, having been newly persuaded by the album, I was terribly pleased when the tall, physically imposing yet seemingly docile Declan came up the steps in front of us to take the stage in the Barbican concert hall. Short dark curly hair topping his gentle, casually dressed frame, Declan and his acoustic guitar approached the lone microphone centre stage and greeted us with a bubbly enquiry as to our welfare. Unusually, and I hate to think it’s my age, rather than even consider fancying him, I thought how sweet he seemed in the way that an aunt or neighbour would fondly look at him, full of silent encouragement and hopes for his success. He had a sense of gentle reticence about him, whilst at the same time coming across as quietly confident but lacking arrogance. His smoothness and charm, which one comes stereotypically to expect from a young Irish lad these days, seemed genuine.

After some members of the audience muttered a muffled response to his greeting, Declan smiled wryly and joked, "I can see I have a rowdy crowd on my hands." He then let on that this was his first official gig in London, and the muted elation on his face encouraged some of the subdued London audience to applaud for him—perhaps others shared my odd proud auntie feeling. Encouraged by this reception, Declan told us that he felt that first impressions were important and that we should all take our shoes off "and I’ll try to blow your socks off."

He began his set with No Place to Hide, the engaging first song from his album, Since Kyabram, a reference to the Australian town he visited with his parents where a priest taught him his first chords on the guitar. This song about a mail-order bride or similarly arranged marriage focused on unhappy people desperately seeking happiness in a way doomed to fail. "She’d travelled many miles to see him, with everything to gain / And he had nothing left to lose, just his loneliness and pain." As Declan sang the refrain of, "But woh, she was pretty when she had no place to hide," his gorgeous, deep, flowing voice rang clear over the marvellous Barbican sound system and he held out notes for impressive lengths that he hadn’t visited on the recording. He played a hoard of percolating notes on the guitar as though he were playing bass guitar with his other pair of hands.

Whilst I would not say that Declan’s voice in itself sounded like Neil Diamond, it certainly had that same rich timbre, a resonance that makes you sit up and long for more. The deep warmth of his voice sounds a bit more like Nick Cave blended with Rufus Wainwright much of the time, but with a special secret ingredient added.

The applause following Declan’s first song showed that he had already won over a substantial number of the hundreds of people who had filled the hall so far, though Declan barely dared to wait to hear whether he had managed to impress them before moving straight on to the absorbing beauty of Sarah (Last Night in a Dream), on which he sounds particularly like a hoarse Rufus Wainwright, his voice soaring over the notes but without quite the same element of cabaret as Rufus. On the album, the song is injured by an overdose of sentimentality largely churned up by rock/orchestral overkill that weakened the undoubtedly genuine feelings behind Declan’s delivery. Though he is largely to blame (in as much as one can blame someone for a fairly impressive, critically acclaimed album), as he produced the album and even co-arranged the strings, the recorded version comes across as a feeble Hootie and the Blowfish concoction. Freed of the production excesses, the live version with which we were treated was a heartfelt, lovely journey into what seemed to be his memory of perhaps a lost sister or young cousin (or I suppose it must be about a lover, but I always felt more moved when interpreting it as applying to a missed child instead) who touched him again with her presence in a dream.

Incidentally, on the album, Declan credits the extraordinary Paddy Casey on that song for "ideas." Declan played guitar as part of Paddy’s band for two years and then found himself in competition with him in the Meteor Ireland Music Awards this year in the category of Best Irish Male, which Casey won in the end. Declan also played guitar on Bic Runga’s European tour, so he’s actually a seasoned performer and used to being around talent who appreciate his talent.

This song to which Casey had contributed ideas was an enchantingly tranquil number at first, Declan’s voice dwelling on each note as he almost seemed to tune whilst playing, tightening a guitar string between lines without halting the proceedings so frequently that I began to wonder whether that was some technique for a chord change, as it didn’t seem to faze him or cause him to skip a beat. Then suddenly he was pounding away on the guitar with enormous gusto, the strength of the song’s emotion bursting through, and the audience sat silently attentive, fixed on the singer before them. Before the final verse, he let his yellow pick drop to the floor without ceremony, returning to the gentle finger-picking required to create the dreamlike yet melancholy impression, his voice absolutely arresting when allowed to take centre-stage without being stifled by the gloss on the album. The refrain of "Hold on with your heart faithful Sarah / For you and I could run through any kind of weather" in particular reminded me of some joyfully enchanting composition from the age of the birth of singer/songwriters of the like of James Taylor and Carole King. Declan ended the number with another dream sequence sound effect on the guitar and was greeted with fervent applause.

Clearly enjoying his first experience with a London audience and the Barbican’s state-of-the-art sound system, Declan sweetly asked if he could play for us all night. He then spoke about the next song and his attempt to answer some bigger questions as he played something like arpeggios on the guitar with an invisible third hand to ease in the incredibly stunning Galileo (Someone Like You), the flagship song from his album. It contained a maturity and dazzling beauty as Declan’s Rufus Wainwright vocal characteristics took on a bit of Peter Cincotti as well. The totally enchanting song was slightly waltzy with gorgeous deep vocals delicately sweeping over the verses. The tune’s natural, perfectly formed beauty was greatly enhanced by the delightful purity of just this exquisite voice over his unencumbered gallant guitar playing, without the extra sentimentality of the music on the album, which it must be said does not manage to ruin the song. It is a bit of a syrupy love song in any guise, but it deserves to be heard—and consequently loved--by the masses. The music is so perfectly composed that it adds weight to the credibility of lyrics that might otherwise be discounted for their soppiness, such as the lines of the chorus, "Who puts the rainbow in the sky? / Who lights the stars at night? / Who dreamt up someone so divine? / Someone like you and made them mine?" But then I understand those are the types of questions one asks when one is in love, and they do have a link to the types of questions that a star-gazing Latin astronomer like Galileo Galilei might ask, and as Declan sings, "But the questions got the better of his scientific mind." Indeed, as the fantastic, booming bridge declares itself, "Love can make you ask some funny questions now and then / But just remember the alternative…."

My friend Harriet whispered the acutely profound observation that she could hear Eddi Reader covering Galileo, and instantly I could make out Eddi’s voice singing the lyrics so vividly that I almost thought it were being played through the speakers. I understand her next album is nearing completion, so I suppose it would be too late to include this gem. But one never knows…Eddi is an admirer and she has even duetted with Declan during one of his gigs in Glasgow.

Having said that, Declan’s original version is spectacular and I preferred his warm, fathomless tones belting it out. His delivery, standing upright whilst staring straight in front of him as he barely opened his mouth, as though singing effortlessly, was flawless. He frequently wore half a wry smile, perhaps because he was still enjoying playing the Barbican to an appreciative audience who filled much of the hall; the latecomers and bar-leaners were fools for missing out. Perhaps the smile betrayed a confidence in the knowledge that he was performing so impeccably. Again, he held out each note for surprisingly breathless lengths, hit the highest note without any challenge despite dancing on the deep notes for much of the song, and eased into an occasional vocal scratchiness for effect. When he reached the line, "I’ll look up high and gladly sigh," he looked as though he was going to look up to the balcony to demonstrate the words, then chickened out and kept his head still, beaming a great deal instead.

When our ecstatic applause died down after he finished, Declan informed us that all of these songs were on his first album, which was also his last album because he only had one out at the moment. The adoring audience chuckled as he added, "So it’s good value as it’s both my first and last album." He combined timidity with cheekiness to put forward that there were a few hundred on sale on a table out in the foyer, did a quick calculation of those present and told us, "So I think there’s enough for one or two each. Don’t go fighting over them or anything!" I hope the few hundred people who were enjoying his performance did go out and grab a copy. I had had to order my copy from Ireland, but it had been worth it.

He then played a strong yet gentle introduction on his guitar to the next song, which turned out to be We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea. Another truly alluring song, his style of singing it verges on the traditional although there is nothing traditional about the tune itself. At six and a half minutes, the CD version had me loving its sensational grace half the time and tiring of its length the rest. But it is an astounding composition, another creation of which he can be proud. At the Barbican, it showcased his quintessential voice marvellously, and he hit the highest and lowest of notes without fail, storming up a volume through his barely-opened mouth and bashing on the guitar to catch everyone’s attention. I briefly worried that such a long and uneventful song, lovely though it was, might allow too many minds to wander, but the audience remained captivated and seemed to appreciate him even more after this dreamy song. Mind you, singing in more of a traditional folk style about a traditional folk subject might have appealed to the audience made up of many Irish people. Plus, as I said, it was a mesmerising winner in any case. His lyrics were more poetic, beginning, "Along the quayside you were a light / And I, a reflection, lay across the river and the night" before proceeding to tell how the lovers accidentally drifted away, then decided to head "Due north, towards the edge of our dreams."

He finished off the song with a near violent attack on this guitar before stopping, facing us with his feet together and bowing regally at the waist towards the audience that was now lapping up every treat he threw their way.

Now feeling a bit chattier, Declan introduced the next song in a voice that, rather than being laced with that typical Dublin smoothie charm, verged more on a slightly more authoritative Father Dougal, Ardal O’Hanlon’s beloved character in Father Ted. He told us that he would usually try to rock out at that point in the show, but as he was on his own, he was feeling a bit mellower. Instead, he told us, he would sing the last song from his last album. At this stage, the audience was willing to laugh at anything this agreeable and talented man uttered.

The last song from his last album was Marrying the Sea. He over-explained the title to an audience just thrilled to hear from him, asking if we had heard that old expression about sailors being married to the sea. London audiences don’t usually go for audience participation until the last 15 minutes of the headliner’s set, well after the interval drinks, so a few people just mumbled in agreement. Declan got us chuckling by commenting that, "I heard someone say ‘yeah’—too shy to shout it out there." He then explained to us, in case we couldn’t figure it out, that he had applied poetic licence to change the title to ‘marrying the sea’ just to make it difficult.

He wandered into a summary of the situation of Kerry man Tom Crean, who explored the Arctic with people such as Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Scott on excursions where people sometimes didn’t make it back. Tom, Declan said, lived at the turn of the last century—then he caught himself and said, "or before!" and insisted that he had actually done his research! He said that period was referred to as The Heroic Age of Exploration. "See there? I did do my research!" he added. The crowd reacted warmly to every quip by this talented and genial young man.

During our history lesson, Declan had been gently strumming his guitar, but then he stopped and let it dangle to his side on its shoulder strap. Without much warning, his talking voice suddenly became a singing voice, venturing into the song a cappella, with absolutely perfect pitch. Here was a song that could easily be mistaken for a traditional folk song written by that prolific writer, Anon, but instead it was a wondrous replica by young Mister O’Rourke. For all his talk about explorers, Declan’s song superficially focused on his nearly ever-present theme of love, as a young man persistently proposes and promises the world to a woman frequently widowed by the sea, but in fact, it is the ocean to whom he is proposing and the ocean who refuses him, saying "How could I place my trust in thee…See, so many men have took my hand / And so many of them left me for the land.".

In between lines came such quiet that the hum of the sound equipment seemed intrusive, and the occasional cough seemed to shatter the dream until we were warmed again by Declan’s elegant voice. Again, I worried unnecessarily about the patience of an audience for a four-minute a cappella song, but they were understandably moved by his voice, versatility and songwriting, and the composition earned applause of nearly its same length. Declan looked as though he wasn’t sure how to manage it, so he strummed his guitar for a moment and watched that carefully rather than look at his new admirers. Incidentally, the recorded version of the song ends with three minutes of bright music including Declan’s mandolin and Sharon Shannon’s accordion, which is one of many other indications that Declan is respected by other artists, and rightly so.

Now the time had come for him to rock out, he informed us, just to show us what he could do. He interrupted this announcement by being so taken by the ingenious Barbican sound system that he exclaimed, "These speakers are wonderful! If I had them at home, I’d never leave the house. I’d just sit at home all day playing to myself." He addressed the sound mixer, pleading, "Can I have them?" Meeting with rejection there, he turned his attentions back to us and enquired—with apparent genuine curiosity rather than in an attempt at an ego boost, "How’d I do—all right?"

His query met with sizeable cheers and whistles from a firmly won over audience, which caused him to beam widely. He then told us what a great gig we were up for when Paul Brady joined us later, and that Declan had loved Brady since he was "that small", leaning over so that his outstretched right hand was a foot off the floor. He thanked us a million for our support before pursuing the previous promise to rock out.

I had assumed he would play what stands out on the album as the most obvious "single" material that seems manufactured for radio, the enormously catchy No Brakes with its somewhat mawkish lyrics, though I would have preferred to have heard the more engaging and equally hook-laden Birds of a Feather.

Instead, he launched into a power-packed rendition of Your World, a song on which his father provides backing vocals on the album. Whilst I enjoyed the song when I first heard the recording, it struck me as being closer to weak AOR Americana and not up to his usual standards, but I had to admit that it does grow on the listener pretty rapidly.

Performed live, the song was instantly gripping and almost intoxicating. Declan really knew the meaning of "rock out" and nearly evaporated into an animated blur. He genuinely seemed to be having fun, wearing a new confidence in the knowledge that we loved his output. This song alone would have won me over, it was vastly boosted by the injection of live enthusiasm, and he managed to do heavenly things on his guitar that proved that he learned from a priest. All that was topped off by that essentially stunning and faultless voice. His left foot did a bit of stomping and he often leaned over his guitar and gave it an extra firm bashing in between vocal lines, his voice gripping onto notes and eventually letting go only reluctantly. Again, his voice was slightly reminiscent of Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, but Darius has a mightily powerful, soulful voice.

The lyrics also seemed to apply to this situation, as he sang, "When I first saw you, I was still standing, / Standing in line, waiting for something . / I was still shy but you taught me I could / Could have some fun if I just was myself." He already let us know that he didn’t particularly want this great time to end, so the chorus of "Your world is where I want to stay / Your world is where I want to play" was quite fitting and sung with solid gusto.

Having positively come to life during this number, Declan finished singing and backed away from the mike to demonstrate the true meaning of "rock out" on his guitar. His right arm became a pneumatic blur, his head bobbed to this rapid beat, and finally he ended the enormous sound we loved.

As I left the auditorium for the interval, I was pleased, though not surprised, to hear some members of the audience commenting on how impressed they had been by young Mr O’Rourke, though some admitted to taking some time to warm to him. He had clearly made the right decision to play the two Irish-folk-influenced songs to a crowd with a large composition of Irish who had come to see the brilliant Paul Brady. I hope he sold numerous CDs, if not two per person, and I saw him cheering up a few punters when he joined them in the bar before Paul Brady’s set.

I had been keen to get to the Barbican on time as I had felt certain that Declan O’Rourke would be worth seeing. Never mind his album being value for money as a two-for-one deal as he mentioned, anything involving him is worthwhile, and I look forward to watching—or hearing—his early talents develop into something masterful that will truly wow the world, given the chance.

Copyright © 2005 by TC. All rights reserved.

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