Madison Square Garden has staged concerts by hundreds of performers, but few concerts there matched the emotional intensity of Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy’s performance. Both on stage and in the audience, it seemed like everyone tingled with ‘the feels.’ Kennedy’s music led his listeners to feel homesick for Ireland, whether or not they had ever been there.
The singer-songwriter started playing guitar at age 10 and songwriting at age 14 in his native Rathcoole County, Dublin. At 17, he began busking on the streets and performing at open mic nights in pubs. Over time, he recorded and released several singles and EPs, eventually compiling them to create his debut album, Without Fear, in 2019. He released his second and most recent album, Sonder, on November 18, 2022. Now, at age 31, Kennedy is about to conclude the 29-date Sonder Tour, which sold out arenas throughout North America.
At Madison Square Garden, after opening sets by Laila Mach and Sasha Alex Sloan, the house lights dimmed. A message in white letters was projected, one sentence at a time, onto a black screen above the stage. The messages read as follows.
I know that you can feel it, magic hangs in the air. I’ve heard if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere. I had a dream, and it came true, so will you celebrate with me? Guide me home, keep me warm, hold me tight New York City.
As the audience cheered, the screen dimmed and pin lights on stage revealed Kennedy’s band beginning the opening song. With keyboardist Benjamin Keys, guitarist Kieran Jones, drummer Micheál Quinn, and vocalists Elize Kellman and James Bradshaw in place, Kennedy came on stage crooning “Blossom” from his Sonder album. Kennedy paced the stage slowly, often crouching at the waist to deliver mightily the most impacting lyrics of the song.
Led by the keyboards rather than guitar, the set fostered a persistently melancholy mood. Most of the songs leaned on similar arrangements, in which Kennedy sang the verses softly, then belted the choruses. His slightly raspy vocals, sometimes approaching an aching howl, perfectly matched his angst-filled lyrics. The strength of this throaty delivery was that it made each lyric and sentiment feel urgent and immediate.
For the bulk of the 19-song set, Kennedy bared his sensitivities. His lyrics not only exposed the tenderness of his soul, but also the universal vulnerabilities and complexities of the human condition. Recurring themes of longing and loneliness, helpless insecurity, and the quest for healing unified and rallied his fans. At times the singing in the audience was as loud as Kennedy’s own amplified vocals.
Aside from the crowd favorites, the concert had several heart-warming highlights. Midway through the program, the singer-songwriter sat at his piano, stage left, for solo moments performing “Rome” and “Innocence and Sadness.” As “Dreamer” neared its climax, it segued into a speech by Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, encouraging the public to pursue its dream of creating art. The final song, “Something to Someone” was punctuated by blasting confetti canons.
Unknown to the thousands at Madison Square Garden, Kennedy sang covers of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” and Sarah Siskind’s “Lovin’s for Fools” at a VIP acoustic pre-show. Also unknown to the masses, Kennedy concluded the night downtown at the Swift Hibernian Lounge. There he climbed onto the bar to sing “The Parting Glass.” The traditional song, originating in Scotland and perhaps more popular in Ireland, often is sung at the parting of a gathering of friends. Singing that song at Madison Square Garden, too, could have been an appropriate way to embrace his fans and close the set.