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Spending The Night With Damien Rice

San Francisco — Exiting the Fillmore that crisp night of November 23 felt like the end of an amazing first date: high on the connection you had just shared with someone you'd never met before but heard a lot of great things about, and in disbelief that all your romantic expectations were not just met, but exceeded. For two hours, the young Irish Prince Charming, Damien Rice, had serenaded us from the famous stage with tales of love, loss, and lust — effortlessly translating the gentle beauty of his fiercely poignant debut album O (Vector) to a sold-out house of over a thousand. People didn't walk out of the building that evening, they floated.

Since the release of O in both Europe and the U.S., Rice has been touring the world, playing to sell-out audiences, first alone and acoustic, and now with his band: Irish vocalist Lisa Hannigan, NYC drummer Tomo, cellist Vyvienne Long and bassist Shane Fitzsimmons. The reviews have been consistently and continentally gushing: "An album of understated gems," wrote The New Yorker. To the Meteor Music Awards on his mantel, Rice has added the Shortlist Music Prize for Artistic Achievement. And the celebrated O is to be found on many "Best of 2003" lists.

Damien Rice is a scruffy, self-deprecating, boyish blond. Despite a more-rascal-than-rogue style, he demonstrates that it's possible to be both ultra-romantic and rock-star cool. The stories of unrequited love and the inevitable humiliations of youth he told that night, in a punky Irish drawl, were of a frustrated Romeo. Each song stood on its own, and yet each played off the others, resulting in the sense that we had experienced one epic tale disguised as a collection of short stories.

Rice sings of the feelings of torment and craving that often come from being in love — without resorting to tired and manipulative clichés. "This next song is about when you were in a relationship and fucked somebody over, even though you never intended to fuck them over, and then you get into a new relationship and are sent someone whose job it is to TOTALLY fuck with YOUR head," he explained before launching into the cautionary anthem "Volcano." The nervous laughter and shy grins of the audience confirmed this all-too-familiar phenomenon.

That seems to be Damien Rice's gift; emotional honesty without the usual corny melodramatic confession that so often accompanies personal disclosure. He shared particularly heart-crushing moments of his own history to illustrate the sometimes painful songwriting process, but he did it with a lightness, as if the jokes were about someone else. He recalled for us, in a long transition between songs, one long night of drinking hot ports with a beautiful girl in a country pub, sure an overnight party for two was imminent, only to find out she was waiting the whole time for her boyfriend to pick her up. With this news, he staggered back to his house and slurred what would later become the bitter bar ballad "Cheers Darlin'" into his 4-track tape player.

The elegant and only orchestrated song on the record, "Amie," began with a surprisingly comic introduction. "I was walking around one day really pissed off [pronounced as a snarling 'possed of'] and saw a cheerleader friend of mine standing in her yard. So I walked over, and she said I looked really pissed, and if I wanted, I could spend the night in her bedroom, and I thought, now this might cheer me up! So that night, I came over and she showed me to her bedroom. She then told me she would be sleeping in her sister's room because she was out of town, and wasn't that great luck!! Just look out the window at the stars, she said, look at the stars! And I thought to myself, I'll show her some fucking stars."

Though often peppered with these rather coarse song intros, the evening maintained a very graceful and romantic feel. He sang each song in character, like a method actor, his voice alternating through the spectrum of tenor growls and sopranic howls. The opening number, "Silver Chests," was an elegant example of a classic singer/songwriter composition, sung in a melancholy whisper. The passionate "Blower's Daughter" competed with a silky rendition of "Delicate" for the most gorgeous and tender song of the night, and the second-encore closer, "Cannonball," sent us home dreaming of the one that got away.

Rice's voice, with beautiful background vocal support by Hannigan for the full two hours, remained consistent and strong throughout the performance. He may not have the smoothest range, but he goes for it with passionate disregard of his weaker vocal altitudes, and in doing so, allows everyone the opportunity to glimpse a moment of emotionally charged imperfection that is forgivable, inspiring and much more difficult to achieve than perfect pitch.

The band was exceptionally relaxed, each member given solo opportunities to shine — the most memorable being Hannigan's brave and powerful intermezzo during "Eskimo" (performed by the opera singer Doreen Curran on the album), and an amazing cello rendition of the White Stripes' "7 Nation Army" (Vivienne has also been performing Hendrix's "Purple Haze" this tour).

High-tech was kept to a minimum, the most exotic tool being a Line 6 pedal that enabled Rice to record his guitar and voice on a loop, creating the illusion of a chorus of Damiens — in the song "Volcano," to echo the tormented cry "She's still too young!" The production was in no way glitzy or glamorous, but there were clearly signs of an artist's attention to details. A giant mirror ball created swirling stars to accompany the bedtime story of "Amie"; the dozen enormous Fillmore chandeliers softly smoldered a deep purple for "Delicate"; a handful of miniature ivory candles flickered as Rice performed "Cold Water" in the dark to close the show (after encore number four). While these subtle trimmings kept the performance visually interesting, the show would have had no trouble remaining solid without them — Damien's natural charisma was adornment enough.

When I talked to Damien an hour before the show, we had a laugh remembering the last time we met. It was June of last year, and he was making the rounds promoting the release of O, performing solo at small venues across the country. He was traveling in a van with his opening act, Joel Shearer of Pedestrian, and I helped them load their equipment, pack up the T-shirt concession and find their hotel. Then we went and grabbed some 2 a.m. burritos for our after-hour tour of SF landmarks, since Damien had never been to the city and was leaving at the crack of dawn the next morning. What a difference a few months make!

We had chatted only a few minutes in a corner of the lobby at the theatre, when he was suddenly surrounded by dozens of fans eager for an autograph (he sweetly and patiently obliged), a crabby tour manager, and various other characters all wanting something from him. He was no longer a singer who carried his own guitar, and the van was now a huge luxury bus. Damien Rice is now an international star, a fact he reluctantly acknowledges with a roll of laughing eyes and an astonished shake of the head — a "you've got the wrong guy" kind of expression.

As we were being separated by the aggressive crowd, hugging goodbye (both for that night and, in a way, to his life as he once knew it), he whispered in my ear "I don't know why they think I'm suddenly so important!"

Walking away, I thought to myself: Maybe he never will understand what all the fuss is about, but if he one day does, I hope those Irish eyes are still smiling like they were tonight. — Nicole Cohen [Friday, January 16, 2004]

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