There was nothing conventional about Damien Rice’s performance last Wednesday at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. He opened the show on a dark stage with just the backdrop lit and walked slowly to the grand piano and played “Accidental Babies” by himself. A great song and a great performance. His band joined him after that; he tours with Lisa Hannigan, Vyvienne Long, Shane Fitzsimmons, and Tomo Osander. Damien said early in the concert that usually when you’re on tour you wait until the last show to try something experimental and different, but he told us right there that it was going to be different and that if we wanted our money back, to visit the box office after the show. Before 9 came out, Damien Rice was labeled as soft and sweet and I tended to agree with that assessment. Other than the occasional “Woman Like A Man,” his songs tend to be gentle but brutal. You might be wondering just how a performance by a singer songwriter can be considered experimental even to the point of being gutsy as my title and nod to Top Gun suggests. Well, early in the show someone from way in the back of the theater yells “Woman Like A Man.” The request yelling started and showed payoff earlier in the evening when a fan yelled “Star Star” to Glen Hansard and he obliged and played it despite his apprehension to stick to his solo material (more on Hansard at another time). This is where my mind began to go beyond star struck audience member to being blown away by the performance. Damien steps out onto the front of the stage and asks (without microphone) if we can hear him. I know from my 12th row seat, I could hear him clear as a bell, but when most of the audience agreed, he started playing the requested song with no amplification. The Paramount is not a small room, so I’m certain not everyone could hear; in fact judging by my seats the next night for Death Cab and Feist, you wouldn’t have heard him in the balcony. The band including Hannigan’s haunting vocals all started without amplification. Eventually they came back to the sound system, but the gutsiness continued. One of my highlights was when Damien took a short break and let the charming cellist Vyvienne Long tell a story and play a song. She covered The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” wonderfully on the piano. Several things continued the edgy performance including omitting “The Blower’s Daughter”, playing several minutes without any lights on the stage, no encore, and singing what seemed like a majority of his vocals through a condensed auxiliary mic that had the consistency of a bull horn. I’m sure there were more than a few people who not only were expecting to hear “Blower’s Daughter,” but also also who wondered where they were at times. I loved it; I thought it was one of the most creative and truly gutsiest live performances I’ve seen. Yes, that’s a period that ended that sentence. Jim Harrington of the Mercury News hated it; hated it so much he questioned why anyone clapped at the end of it. Yes, regardless of what Jim Harrington thought, he got a standing ovation. Brilliance and genius are often misunderstood…sometimes by guys who write reviews for newspapers. The fans in the crowd seemed to either “get it” or embrace it for Damien Rice continuing to put his heart out under a spotlight for the world to see. Some pictures from the performance can be found at Inside the Bay Area (at the bottom of the review).
Update: I listened to a boot of Damien’s next show two nights later in LA and it’s a much more conventional show, not nearly the edgy awesomeness, so it may have been a truly one time thing.