The buzz on Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice has been deafening; a huge push from KCRW and his nomination for the Shortlist Prize have only added to the sense that he’s the “next big thing.” But his gorgeous Vector records debut “O” (as in “Story of”) is so intensely intimate (it opens with the lyric, “We’re alone and nobody’s watching” and only gets more isolated) and finely wrought that hearing it performed in a room filled with people feels like a violation.
When microphone problems flared up at the start of his Henry Fonda Theater appearance, Rice proved himself a winning presence. Stepping out to the lip of the stage, he continued to sing the opening number, “Delicate,” without amplification, and the sold-out house joined in. Not even a 10-minute break to address the sound problems (which did not affect the front-of-house mix) could crack the aud’s connection with Rice. The stage setup, with a dowdy lamp, minimal lighting and the drums pushed to one side of the stage, added to the evening’s homey feeling.
The songs proved sturdier in performance than the album would lead one to believe. Rice is charming and upbeat onstage, with a sense of humor the album sometimes hides. “Childish” is a wry take on rock star self-satisfaction; “Woman to a Man” is performed with a lusty grin. And if the number of couples making out during the show is any indication, his music has aphrodisiac qualities.
His melodic compass points him toward folk: The melody of “I Remember” recalls Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel #2,” and he ends the set with a cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” although his version owes much to Jeff Buckley. But his dynamic sense comes straight from rock, specifically Nirvana/emo’s soft/loud/soft structures. “Aime” builds to a Velvet Underground-ish jam, with Vyvienne Long’s cello exchanging leads with Rice’s treated acoustic guitar. His broad influences are heard in the encore’s long jam (with opening act Pedestrians) that deftly segued from Prince’s “When Doves Cry” to Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” to Portishead’s “Glory Box.”
Although the nearly 2½ hour show was a little too generous (Rice gives Long and singer Lisa Hannigan, whose dusky alto provides a lovely foil for Rice, time centerstage), few in the crowd left. Rice had more than lived up to the hype.