Review Summary: The Rocky Road is in every sense a tribute to the folk music that inspired Dempsey as a youth
The phrase “covers album” tends to carry with it the hint of a cash grab, so often is it an attempt by an established artist and their people to siphon a few extra cents off the top of their moment in the spotlight. Indeed, there was much more than a hint last year when Sony BMG put out an expanded edition of Damien Dempsey’s fourth studio album, his peak-to-date To Hell Or Barbados
, barely a few months after the album was first released, cobbling together rejected songs and a couple of covers that, while thoughtfully placed on a separate disc, were definitely die-hards only material. But as one of Ireland’s finest exponents of its rich musical heritage, a covers album for Dempsey is as much a rite-of-passage as it is a tribute to his influences. In fact, the only real surprise is that it’s taken him ten years to get around to making it.
The Rocky Road
is in every sense a tribute to the music that inspired him as he grew, both in terms of the songs he ingested as a youth at family gatherings, and the music of the Dubliners
- in particular their tragic leader Luke Kelly
, from whose deep, booming roar Dempsey has acquired much- as a number of the tunes re-popularised by them in the 1960s and ‘70s are represented here, including the title track ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin,’ ‘Schooldays Over’ and ‘Kelly From Killan.’ He recruited the two longest-serving Dubliners, Barney McKenna (the sole surviving founder since Ronnie Drew’s death on August 16) and John Sheahan, to help create fresh arrangements for each of the 13 songs, which range from nineteenth century jigs and ballads (‘Kelly From Killan’) to anti-British war cries (‘The Foggy Dew’) and even the relatively new: ‘Schooldays Over’ and the Pogues
‘A Rainy Night In Soho’ (the album’s lead single.)
Most of these tracks are more or less impossible to screw up, and a seasoned performer and riveting vocalist like Dempsey was never likely to do these classics a disservice, but some of the performances are significantly better than others. The debt Dempsey owes to Luke Kelly, arguably the finest vocalist this island has ever produced, has already been noted and on occasion- particularly on the warrior screed ‘Kelly From Killan,’ where he’s particularly reliant on Kelly’s impassioned cadence- he fails to fully distinguish himself. Elsewhere, however, Dempsey succeeds in liberating his songs from the shackles of convention. ‘Schooldays Over,’ a working man’s ballad written by Anglo-Scottish politi-folk legend Ewan (father of Kirsty) MacColl, is one of several of the songwriters’ songs that Kelly effectively made his own, yet Dempsey’s rendition may just surpass it, replacing the sparse arrangement as intended by MacColl and fleshing it out with breezy acoustic guitars and a smooth, lilting violin air.
‘A Rainy Day In Soho’ is another surprising highlight. Replacing the smoky jazz strokes of the original with a soaring traditional arrangement augmented by mandolin, violin and tin whistle, Dempsey puts in one of his sweetest, most melodic vocals in place of MacGowan’s drunken yowl- the result is a dramatic rethink of an already ambitious track. ‘The Foggy Dew,’ which classic rock fans might recognise as an influence on Thin Lizzy’s war tract ‘Emerald,’ features an outstanding vocal performance that sees Dempsey exercise the full range of his emotional pallet, while ‘The Heckler From Grouse Hall’ and ‘Hot Asphalt’ (which the singer pronounces ‘Ash-felt’) show him to be just as adept with the light-spirited, up-tempo ballads as he is the more reflective pieces. Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid The Rocky Road
is to say it can easily be recommended alongside the best in the Dubliners and Luke Kelly’s catalogue, a distinction both Dempsey and Kelly would no doubt be delighted with.
Full album stream: