More than a glimpse of the man behind the mask

Special to The Times

Damien Rice continues the line of Irish sensualists that runs from William Butler Yeats through Van Morrison. But it's a safe bet that Yeats never performed wearing a sparkly red Lucha Libre mask. Rice -- having received that item as a birthday present on Thursday -- did in fact don the disguise for the third number of his show Friday at the Orpheum Theatre, his first of two nights at the lovely deco downtown house. As the song was the dark, frenzied sexual impressionism of "Me, My Yoke and I" -- a highlight of his new album, "9" -- the result was a disturbing mix of menace and comedy.

Striking contrasts, if not always that twisted, helped make Rice such a find with his 2003 debut album "O" and his mercurial concerts. Rice and his four-member band (co-singer Lisa Hannigan, cellist Vivienne Long, bassist Shane Fitzsimons and drummer Tom Osander) reaffirmed that Friday with an in-the-moment approach to his vividly involving material.

The show was a thrilling, vertiginous roller coaster of starkly solemn dips and anguished rises, such laments as "Volcanoes" playing out with operatic drama and the band carrying him from chamber delicacy (the disconsolate "The Animals Are Gone") to orchestra-level density (the carnal revel "Woman Like a Man"). Hushed soprano Hannigan alternately knelt shyly on the stage when she wasn't singing and, when she was, served as emotional counterpoint and muse to Rice's romantic wretch.

Masked diversion aside, it was neither as sprawling nor as spontaneous as some Rice shows, but there was still plenty of sprawl and spontaneity. At one point, having just started "Elephant," he stopped, seemingly dazed, then left the stage to Long, who took a giddy solo turn. When Rice returned, he said he'd "fallen asleep standing up" -- it had never happened before, he assured; he was just jet-lagged -- and resumed the interrupted song. Now that sort of thing may well have happened to Yeats.

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