Review: With folk roots and a hip-hop influence, Irish artist Dermot Kennedy is on the verge of breaking out

At the El Rey, Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy's set showed a young writer already in transition, a singer with a strong backbone and star power beginning to test his limits and find new contexts for his talent.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy was halfway through his ballad “For Island Fires and Family” at the El Rey Theatre on Friday when a lone voice broke the crowd’s silence.

“And even though this life, this love is brief, I’ve got some people who carry me,” Kennedy sang over a stark acoustic guitar, when suddenly the audience turned around to see what the ruckus in back was all about.

It wasn’t a heckler or an overly chatty couple, though. It was somebody trying to sing their own harmonies.

That’s the kind of reaction the 25-year-old Dubliner gets from his young, earnest and rapidly growing fan base. His blend of throat-ripping contemporary folk — honed from months of busking on Dublin’s famed Grafton Street — and up-to-the-minute electronic productions looks to be a likely heir to peers like Bon Iver and Hozier (and though Kennedy may not choose this as first comparison, he’s got some of Ed Sheeran’s commercial potential too).


Yet he’s also turned ears in the rap world as well. Kennedy was a smash hit at this year’s South by Southwest music festival and conference in Austin, Texas, and has recently collaborated with Kanye West’s go-to producer Mike Dean. It’s easy to hear why rappers see a kinship there, as Kennedy’s rapid-fire poetry and mournful choruses fit right in with that genre’s moods today.

Dermot Kennedy performs at the El Rey.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times )

At the El Rey, his set showed a young writer already in transition, a singer with a strong backbone and star power beginning to test his limits and find new contexts for his talent.

Kennedy first took off stateside on Spotify when he released his single “After Rain” in 2016 (it’s veering close to 40 million plays on the streaming service). It was well-executed if pretty traditional singer-songwriter fare. But his voice had a tense, grab-you-by-the-collar quality that made it hard to ignore. And there was something else under the surface, a toughness and blue-collar sincerity that spoke of bigger sonic possibilities for his folk than, say, the mannered and genteel Mumford & Sons ever pulled off.

About half the El Rey set drew from his early material, like “An Evening I Will Not Forget,” which put his intimate lyricism up front. When he dug deep on a line like, “I remember when her heart broke over stubborn [things] / That’s no way to be living kid, the angel of death is ruthless,” you could hear the pain of trying to pull a bull-headed, hard-drinking partner back from the ledge.

When he played from his 2017 EP “Doves & Ravens,” the crowd sang every word of the pleading, wide-open choruses of “Boston” and “Glory” right back to him (telling, given how new he is stateside).

But it was when he locked in on newer songs like “Moments Passed” that the fireworks hit. Kennedy had a three-piece backing band, and when they switched from guitars to keyboards, it felt like a changing of the color guard. Using new tools like self-sampling his vocals, sub-bass and quick-fire rap drumming, he brought his very old folk sound deep into the future, and you could hear an unmistakable conversation happening between two musical genres born of deprivation and strife on separate sides of the Atlantic.

That’s the kind of flexibility and ambition that make him a more interesting pop figure than most of his folk peers ever aspired to be. Maybe someone like the Neighborhood’s Jesse Rutherford is something of a reference here: a rocker conversant in hip-hop and R&B aesthetics, with a distinctive vocal style that appeals to all sides in any setting.

Kennedy was smart enough to know that the last thing pop music needs right now was a new revival of the last late-aughts folk resurgence. But his writing and star caliber felt like they could stand on their own in any era.

Watching him Friday, you could see a young singer on the rise with so many different roads ahead of him.

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