It’s the eve ahead of the hottest September day in nearly a century. A crowd is gathering upstairs at Paper Dress Vintage on Hackney’s Mare Street, and Pat Dam Smyth, supposedly oblivious to the fact that the place is gradually becoming hotter than a local hipster’s pizza oven, has on his classic black suit and wide brimmed hat; his long straggly muddle of curls and equally chaotic beard morph into one mass of dark hair, covering his face almost entirely. He looks very much like the busker he once was. But as he takes to the cramped stage, illuminated by the dim red lights hanging overhead, it becomes immediately apparent that Smyth’s days playing for loose change on the streets of Belfast are long behind him.
Pat Dam Smyth, who moved to London from his native Northern Ireland, is on the rise. Before the release of his debut album: ‘The Great Divide’ in 2011 he mostly toured with Smokey Angle Shades, a four-part harmony band with ex-747 members Ned Crowther and Fred Stitz. He has also performed with Paul Weller and Mick Jones, among others. But it’s his solo material that frames his best abilities.
Tonight is a preview of new material, ahead of the release of Smyth’s second album, which was funded through Pledge Music. The crowdfunding campaign Smyth says “helped us make the album we wanted, without compromise”. Recorded at Analogue Catalogue in Northern Ireland over two weeks with engineer, Dougal Lott (Ray Davies), it was, in Smyth’s words, “a lot of work” but the response from fans has been “amazing”.
His seven-song set, featuring Chris McComish (drums and synths) and Tim Abbey (bass) is as tight as it is absorbing. Subtle references to Beck, Lou Reed, Bowie and The Beatles come through over the clear folk and punk-rock influences. The crowd gives its undivided attention. Penultimate song ‘Blue Lights’ is, says Smyth, like most of the songs on the album, “based on a true story that happened in a small town in Northern Ireland in the late 90s”. He goes on to explain “my first band Betty Blue were doing our first headline show, playing to a full house in the local town hall. We played with our heads down those days. When we looked up after the 5th song there was no one in the audience. Our Initial thoughts were ‘we suck’. Then, a solider came running in screaming: ‘There’s a bomb outside everyone get the f**k out now’. We ran out of the building and jumped into a friend’s car and sped out of town along down the motorway. In ‘Blue Lights’ I wanted to show that this was a normal experience in those days. By the next weekend we had most likely forgotten all about it. The Troubles were normalised because this is all we had ever known. We were just kids in a band, the same as any other band in any small town. Just the backdrop was different”.
This is rare, truthful songwriting at its best and it’s personal stories like this which mark Smyth out as a talent rivalling Leonard Cohen. Pat Dam Smyth will appear at Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg on 23rd September, with further London shows planned after that, an Irish tour, and one “big London show” to launch the new album, in a few weeks’ time.
Writer and Photographer: Will Steadman: @steadman_will
The night was arranged by Karousel Music; a London based collective of musicians, songwriters and music industry professionals. The non-profit organisation, which is dedicated to promoting a better environment for songwriters, artists and budding music business pros, puts on regular showcase nights in London.