Live Review: David Keenan // Islington Assembly Hall 23.11.21

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Prior to attending his gig, I’d had only a vague understanding of who Irish singer-songwriter David Keenan was. I’d heard about his claim to fame, a viral video of him singing for a taxicab driver, but I was reluctant to watch it for fear of disappointment.

Turns out, I didn’t have to worry. I spent the duration of his set a little slack-mouthed, struck by the intricacies of his songwriting. Urban imagery saturates his work (“landscapes littered with bric-a-brac / Deck chairs stripped of their hides”), likely drawn from his own experiences living in a council estate in Dundalk, or his time spent busking on the streets of Liverpool.

Still, for all his focus on mundanity, there was something fantastical about Keenan’s set that evening—no doubt caused, at least in part, by his bass player’s Regency-style cravat. His songs shimmered with folkloric charm, embellished with poetic language and recurring motifs such as barking dogs and elusive druids. In ‘The Boarding House’, Keenan called upon the nine sisters, a possible reference to Arthurian legend. Similarly, in ‘The Grave of Johnny Filth’, he mentioned “the seven sisters of sleep”, perhaps alluding to the open star cluster or the Greek myth after which it was named. This intermingling of the humdrum and the absurd made for a thrilling listening experience.

A sense of existentialism tinged his performance, summarised by the title of his most recent album, “WHAT THEN?” and encapsulated in his song ‘Philomena’, which rose up like smoke from Keenan’s otherwise boisterous setlist. “Sing me to sleep”, he cried, “can I stay with you during the week / We could feed the wee birds”. This child-like plea for comfort seemed to strike a chord among the crowd, who fell completely silent as he continued, “poor me, poor me, pour me a drink / Death is doing backflips”. After such a tumultuous year, it was easy to resonate with Keenan’s desire for emotional respite. “When we were younger it always seemed to be sunny”, he continued, disillusioned and wistful.

The melancholic longing of ‘Philomena’ was echoed in ‘Evidence of Living’, wherein Keenan pondered the existence of himself and those around him: “Would I find any evidence of living amongst you saddening crowds?” There came a moment when my friend and I, lips pursed, eyes tearful, held onto each other as though we were seconds from disappearing.

Contrasting Keenan’s contemplative setlist was Keenan himself, who conducted the crowd with a brotherly sort of affection, flipping us the bird upon hearing whispered requests for ‘The Friary’, planting kisses on his band members’ cheeks just because he could, encouraging us all to turn around and shake hands with a stranger. His energy was contagious. The crowd danced to every song. By the end of the evening, after he had finally acquiesced and played ‘The Friary’ for us all, I felt giddy—albeit a little sentimental. 

On the train home, I looked up Keenan’s viral video. After seeing him act so jovial on stage, it felt strangely obtrusive to watch his younger self clamber into the passenger seat of a taxicab, guitar in hand, to crane over his multi-looped scarf and sing ‘El Paso’ for an audience of one. Still, his songwriting was as enchanting as it had been at the gig. It became clear that his music, seemingly inspired by memory and fiction in equal measure, would stick with me long after the venue’s lights faded from view.  

Words by Phoebe Kalid 


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