From the moment Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice took the stage at the beautiful old Riviera Theater on Chicago's far North side, it was clear that he was all business. No, it wasn't his white bell bottom pants and multi-colored puffy shirt that gave away Rice's businesslike demeanor. There was just something about the way he approached the mic amidst a barrage of hoots and hollers and didn't say a word to the crowd, simply strumming the quiet notes of his first song until the cheers resided that portrayed the businesslike demeanor. Rice has been to Chicago three times since the release of O, going from a semi-full room at the 200-person Schubas to selling out the 2,300-person Riviera Theater in a little over a year.
Even though he's been in town before, I had never seen Damien Rice play live. Having heard from just about everyone who has seen him that I was in for a "religious experience," Damien had a lot to live up to. At first, I was a bit nervous that the slow, introspective songs that fill O would lose their charm after a while and that it would be a bit boring. I couldn't have been more wrong. Armed with 27,211 effects pedals, a cellist, bass player, drummer, and amazing back up singer, Rice proceeded to blow the socks off the Riviera crowd, turning the songs we all know into extended rock jams. Taking full advantage of his effects, including a loop pedal and a distortion-filled second microphone, Rice led his group of outstanding musicians in a number of noise and wailing solo-filled rock tunes. "Volcano," "Delicate" and other faves from O were beautiful and his back-up singer had the most amazing, classically trained voice. Her vocals on the album get lost in the mix at times, but not so in a live setting. She was a hit with the crowd as well, many times drawing a larger response than Rice.
What surprised me the most was the complete 180 Rice has pulled for his new songs. Where the songs on O are filled with images of love and beauty and a sound that's softer than a baby's butt, his new songs are angry, disenchanted and filled with distortion. For his vocals on these new songs, Rice used a second mic (similar to the one Jack White uses) that ended up masking the natural beauty of his voice. While these songs were a surprise, and not the Damien Rice I was expecting, they made his set much more engaging and entertaining.
Chatting with the crowed was not Rice's forte, at least not last night. The only time he did talk to the fans, was to say, "whoever is talking can justÖ fuck off!" Sitting in the upper balcony, I didn't hear much of the chatter thankfully, but from people I talked to who were on the floor, it got pretty bad. There's nothing worse than a bunch of drunk idiots yelling shit at an artist when he's pouring his heart out on stage. Rice had to stop the show on a couple of other occasions to combat the crowd chatter and it sort of sent an awkward vibe throughout the Riv. However, when the cellist came out prior to the first encore and played an adaptation of "Seven Nation Army" on her cello, all was forgiven.
It's incredibly clear why Damien Rice has achieved such a great deal of success in such a short time. It would be hard not to like his live gigs and the CD, wellÖ it's like an audio version of the Mona Lisa - simply beautiful, yet endlessly complex.