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a concert review

WORDS by Tessa Swantek 
TALENT Dermot Kennedy

“Thank you so so so so much. I will figure this out later — how to speak about it. It feels impossible to explain what this means, but if you’re here, you kind of understand.”

-Dermot Kennedy in Madison Square Garden

After seeing his concerts in Madison Square Garden and Freedom Mortgage Pavilion, I also had to figure it out later — how to write about it. And having been a listener of his music for about five years now, I did understand.

When I try to figure out where to start, I find my mind drifting toward the middle. There’s something to be said about that — the middle is often forgotten, until you realize it was all about the middle. The in-between sounded like slowly scintillating keys, as he sat by the piano before performing “Rome” and “Innocence and Sadness.” Before “Rome,” he asks with such earnesty that each person in the crowd “pick one memory that feels closest to perfect.” He continues, “There are memories that are gone immediately, there are some that fade, and some that just do not leave. I know you have them. Spend this song inside this memory.” He then asks that each person — it matters that it’s each person — turn on their phone flashlights and hold them up while he sings. As the piano counts him in, each twinkle is another second, before the memories flood in. He closes his eyes, retreats into himself and flies like a bird ceaselessly into the past. The room is lit in frosty blue light, and his memories feel as if they are illuminated in gold above us, like a single copper streetlight in the snow. As he sings, “So, what's the past for? / I'll need it if love don't last long / You can run around infinite in my head,” each person’s apparitions are set alight. They swirl around the room, between the past and present.

I don’t think they leave.

There’s a nostalgic feeling that lingers in the pale gray fog rippling in, it’s somewhere between sad and happy. All of his music really is a thunderous collision between fear and courage, loss and life, despair and love. “Innocence and Sadness” — the next song he performs at the piano, is where everything seems to collide. Before singing, he says “I say this every night but I’m so determined for it not to become just something I say every night so I want it to be different - particularly tonight.” He continues, “All this music, there’s one idea that runs through all of it and it’s the fear of time passing. The idea that no matter how beautiful something is or how untouchable it may seem, it does end. That can sound sad, but I realized not so long ago that even that first album being called Without Fear is an attempt to convince myself…If there’s anything you take from this music, let it be that you cherish the people that love you. If there’s someone here tonight or someone that you miss, just be so grateful that they loved you. It’s all we have.”

As he sang “Nobody told me at the start how heaven can hurt / I'll be waiting under streetlight at Bowery and third / Know I was waiting on ya, know I was waiting on ya” The New York City crowd echoed him even louder, and it was like we all met there under the streetlight and waited. It’s a place we all seemed to know. In Freedom Mortgage Pavilion, a single moth floated toward the flooding stagelight as he sat by the piano; I couldn’t tell if it felt like a death or a rebirth.

While he fears it, Dermot Kennedy is a master timekeeper. The best timekeeper is a child, a natural magician. They don’t slow down time, no one can, but they savor it. They swim in it, without drowning. They grab Time’s tiny golden hands and lead them as the shining flakes coat their palms. When we are young, each second of actual time is packed with many more mental images. Like a slow-motion camera that captures thousands of images per second, time appears to pass more slowly. Dermot Kennedy’s concerts feel like that. On the screen, during the entirety of the concert, different images and words lit behind him. Dusty amber light in windows at night, spitting seas, reaching hands, red rain, wind-whistling mountains. During “Young and Free” birds beat their wings across the screen behind him. His voice is like a low ripple on which they soar, as he sings, “All that she said to me stays with me, never to die / Held me brand new in the silence that went through the pines / Like I said already darling, I don’t want you looking back at all the ghosts left behind.”

When he sings “Without Fear,” phrases fly across the screen:

West Winds
To Know You
Your Voice
Sing to Me
Rose in the River
The Depth of You
Shine a Light
The Unseen
A Mother’s Tears
A Lion’s Chest

The Scent of My Soul.


It smelled like bleeding summer sunshine, musky cellophane, rain-soaked steel, amber embers, gas lamps in ghostly hotels, moondust, frostbitten furze, whiskey, sea spray, wilted roses, a moonlit lake. 

To “slow down” time is to let every sense ignite — every smell, image, word, color, sound.

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Dermot Kennedy in Madison Square Garden, NEW YORK, NY

Before “Moments Passed,” a distorted speech from Irish President Michael D. Higgins billows out; “Through our art, our music, our dance, we are enabled to connect to our shared past, to celebrate our present as well, and most important of all, imagine the possibilities for our futures together. Samhlaíocht.” He continues, “So let us continue to dream. Let us continue to love. Let us continue to encourage. Let us continue to create.” Connection through creation is what Dermot Kennedy’s music calls for, especially his second album, Sonder.

SONDER    the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

If Without Fear is him trying to convince himself not to fear time’s passing, Sonder feels like acceptance at least in the idea that we won’t go lonely. Before singing “After Rain,” he says, “If you only sing one lyric this whole night, let it be this one — “You won’t go lonely.” At the end of the song, the crowd repeats the phrase in unison over and over and over again. Each body follows in rhythm with his like a car under a low hanging moon. At some point you realize you’re not really singing his lyrics back to him, each and every person is telling them to themselves. That’s what sonder feels like. Realizing we all exist in the same natural  rhythm — of the tides, of the seasons, of day and night. Steady rhythm joy.

Now let’s finally get to the start. He opened the concerts with “Blossom,” the final song on his most recent album, Sonder. He sings, “I'll see that photo I took of you with the blossom tree above you / And I'll just be glad I loved you like I did / This whole life you said / Is like a dream that you don't wanna forget.” He starts with the end, or the acceptance of it. It’s simple, and while many of his songs feel like a fierce battle against time, this feels different. He ends the concert on a very similar notion with “Something to Someone.” The crowd echoes, “But once upon a time / I was something to someone / Once upon a time / I was something to someone” until it feels like it’s enough — until something that simple means everything. He turns us homeward at the right time. It was the first concert that didn’t feel like it flew by, that I didn’t immediately regret having not savored it. He was the perfect timekeeper for all of us.

Going home from Madison Square Garden, I walked alongside a group of two couples from Ireland who sang “Olé, Olé, Olé” all the way home as the street lit up. Leaving Freedom Mortgage Pavilion, cars rolled their windows down and Dermot Kennedy songs echoed until we all split paths. We were all connected even in leaving. I wondered who they all were and where they were going.

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