The lone troubadour is one of the most romantic figures in musical history, but we’ve come a very long way from the travelling minstrels of medieval courts, the footsore delta bluesmen on American highways, or, for that matter, Bob Dylan and his many acolytes putting the world to rights armed with only acoustic guitars and harmonicas.
These days, former open mic champion Ed Sheeran has established a global superstar brand by gamely adapting singalong strums to slick dance beats that barely feature a recognisable acoustic instrument. Sensitive singer-songwriting is big showbusiness, and troubled souls who might once have cowered in bedsits lamenting their love lives are out on the road with fleets of trucks loaded with enough lights and video screens to make Pink Floyd look shy and retiring.
And so it was with Dermot Kennedy, top of the latest crop of maximalist minstrels. With only one album to his name, 2019’s chart-topping Without Fear, the Irish songsmith was playing the first of three sold-out nights at north London’s 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace.
Backed by a six-piece band featuring three backing vocalists, a bassist, keyboard player and drummer, Kennedy emerged from the darkness onto an artfully raised stage in a moody blaze of strip lights and fizzing geometric screens. A drone of cold synthesizer buzzed beneath his cracked, soulful voice and his acoustic guitar was nowhere to be seen. You might have thought you were watching a boy band or moody electro outfit rather than a man who started his career busking Van Morrison songs on the streets of Dublin.
On record, Kennedy sounds like a natural heir to David Gray and Damien Rice with a touch of the Bon Iver, passionately emoting over wracked ballads of tortured feeling with knottily complex lyrics. But he’s got a canny commercial streak when it comes to building big choruses and underpinning melodies with digital beats, all topped off with the kind of raw voice that has become a staple of male British pop soul (think Rag’n’Bone Man and Tom Grennan).
A harsh military buzz-cut hairdo and rangy, raw-boned features only serve to underline his particular brand of bruised masculinity. His biggest songs like Giants and Outnumbered have accrued hundreds of millions of streams with sentiments of hangdog devotion and sticking by loved ones in a crisis, and there was a look of earnest pleading in his eyes as he frequently asked the audience to “sing this bit with me”. When the predominantly female crowd duly complied, they would be rewarded with a shy smile that lit up the room every bit as effectively as the expensive light show.
At 29, Kennedy is already old in in pop years. He spent the best part of a decade in indie obscurity before dogged persistence and superior songcraft finally carried him aloft. But he has certainly learned how to hold an audience over that decade of struggle. When technical problems caused supercharged anthem Power Over Me to break down, he strapped on his guitar and kept singing with the crowd, calling out “second verse” to indicate when his band should rejoin. Drums duly thumped in to pump up the volume but flatten the emotion.
Kennedy asked for quiet to perform an a capella version of intense ballad For Island Fires and Family, and the audience (mostly) obliged. “We were open and vulnerable and it was wonderful,” he sang, and you could almost hear a collective sigh rising to the ceiling of the stately Victorian hall.
A singer-songwriter purist might wish Kennedy would dial down the effects more often and just let these heartfelt songs and his richly expressive voice work their magic. A pop pragmatist would understand that Kennedy is playing a bigger game and has no intention of returning to street corners to collect coins in a hat. He is bound for a very different kind of glory than such troubadour forebears as Woody Guthrie. Have lighting rig, will travel.