Metaphorical jaws were on the floor of Hamer Hall.
A pissed-up Irish bloke is swaying at the urinal. He puts one hand on the tiled wall ahead of him as he struggles to keep his balance, pontificating to anyone who can hear him: “…his voice is his third best attribute and his guitar playing is second, but what this lad really has is an understanding of musical composition.” And as much as I judge the bloke for exiting the Men’s Room without washing his hands, he’s not wrong.
Damien Rice has an innate understanding of resolving melodies - he may flirt with dissonance to increase the tension in his music, but he always brings his songs back to that warm and inviting resolution. It’s why his music feels so homely, it’s why the end of his songs sound like the satisfying conclusion of a good story and it’s why a lot of us are at Hamer Hall – whether we know it or not: we crave it.
This tour is a bit of an oddity. Rice is not promoting any new album. He’s not touring as part of a larger festival. It’s a throwback gig to an era when not every element of the release, promotion, or tour cycle of an artist was so formulaic. Could it be that Damien Rice is here purely because he wants to play his music for us?
This is made even harder to believe when you consider that the Irish singer-songwriter last released an album nine years ago with My Favourite Faded Fantasy, which itself came eight years after its predecessor, 2006's 9. He hasn’t exactly been following Dolly Parton’s mantra. But for a generation of Irish people, folk singers, and Irish folk singers, he was their great lost hope – a man of prodigious talent – whose partnership both creatively and romantically with multi-instrumentalist Lisa Hannigan made them Europe’s answer to David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Together Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan were a sum greater than their parts, inspiring the careers of Ben Howard, Hozier and Ed Sheeran. They were going to conquer the world. Until they didn’t.
Instead, the pair’s acrimonious split in 2007 sent your man spiralling – whether it played a role in his Splendour In The Grass cancellation that year will always be debated, but Damien Rice’s retreat from the spotlight at the peak of his powers was an unfettered tragedy for fans of brooding ruminations of complicated relationships everywhere. And judging by the gaiety in Melbourne’s Arts Centre this evening, I think most people are just happy he’s back.
Surrounded by an array of guitars and a mini upright piano on the vast stage of Hamer Hall, Rice stands under the dimmest of spotlights, picks up a guitar and plays the opening notes of Delicate. And quite simply his performance is spellbinding. The cavernous theatre is so quiet you can hear his nylon guitar strap being moved across his shoulders and there’s not a single camera in sight – as not only had Rice successfully transported us to his own heyday of 2003, but apparently the crowd’s concert etiquette had followed suit.
The crowd’s decorum was duly rewarded. It would have been easy for Rice to resist the urge to play songs from his most beloved albums O and 9, not only because of their age but of the connections the songs have with previous bandmates. Other artists would have concentrated on newer material in an attempt to shed their old skin and prove to the crowd that they had reinvented themselves. So, it was even more rewarding that the night’s performance was so graciously replete with fan favourites, including Amie, Coconut Skins and I Remember.
The fact Rice did not greet the audience at any point in the night with some inane “How you doing Melbourne?” might have been subconsciously felt by some as a slight. Maybe he’s arrogant. Or grumpy. Or too precious to engage with us. All assumptions are proven charmingly incorrect towards the end of the show when one enthusiastic punter breaks the hour-long silence between artist and audience with a longing “Pleeaaaaasseeee play Elephant”. 99% of performers would have laughed the moment off and ignored the request.
Instead, Rice answered that he couldn’t remember the words as he hadn’t played the song in years. He then proceeded to adjust the capo on his guitar and play a note-perfect, word-perfect version of the song. He absolutely knocked it out of the park. It was the highlight of the night. Metaphorical jaws were on the floor of Hamer Hall. The internet later tells me that he hasn’t played this song since a gig in Tibet in 2019 – a fact that further underlines his busker’s soul.
The crowd, now attune to his generosity, see how far they can push him. “Now play Rootless Tree” echoes out before Rice’s wit bites back “I guess I’ll just be a request bitch then". After a mournful piano-led version of Rootless Tree, he invites his new Brazilian cellist Francisca Barreto back on stage to finish predictably, but generously with the song that started it all, The Blower’s Daughter.
Such an imperious performance from the borderline recluse is enough to remind us just how powerful his tenor is and how much we have missed his emotionally intense reflections on heartache, infidelity, and longing. But hey, at least he’s happy.