David Keenan’s concert film Alchemy & Prose is a joy to watch. From beginning to end, you are taken under Keenan’s wing – as a viewer, an audience member, a music-lover and a member of the community which Keenan cultivates so effortlessly but so meaningfully.
Alchemy & Prose captures Keenan’s performance of his debut album A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre at the start of the year. The film takes viewers behind the scenes of David’s life on the road with his bandmates and how the album itself came to be. Although it has a behind-the-scenes element, the film doesn’t feel like an exclusive, fly-on-the-wall documentary, but an exploration of how, in many ways, the scene has already been set. All that David describes in his conversations off-stage, from his inspiration to his growth to his relationship with his “tribe”, comes across ten-fold in the powerful, moving January performance. On David’s talent, passion, ambition and artistry, there is little need for elaboration. But he and his bandmates speak so beautifully that we have a strong desire to hear about it anyway – a desire to consume the alchemy behind the prose.
Although David’s belief in his sound is clear from the offset, the concept of fear is one which returns throughout the concert film as David himself stations it as the emotion he felt when taking to the stage for the first time. This fear is countered by the fact that he has something to say, though, and that the only way he can say it is by channelling the feeling he gets when he picks up the guitar and plays to the masses. It is this fear which can be seen in David right before the curtain drops at the Olympia, making it almost a relief when we see it transform into a nervous energy which he harnesses to deliver a thumping set to the crowd.
I have always maintained that David brings out the other-worldly – in his music, in his lyrics and in himself. Through his music, it seems David is trying to find a way to locate that middle ground between here and there, wherever that may be, so we may exist in that world, too. And it’s in this pursuit of that sweet spot that the audience become so enchanted and engaged at his concerts – especially the one which took place on that winter’s night in Dublin.
David is generous, not just with his music – “lend me your voices”, he bellows to fans – but also with his time and energy. Music is a way of venting the human condition, there’s nothing that I haven’t felt that they haven’t felt, and so we need to share that, David explains. Consequently, there is a special sort of intimacy that is created in every venue that David plays; an intimacy that is deliberate, but not feigned. It is perhaps an atmosphere created to show that music can bring us together but also force us to let go. During Love in a Snug, in fact, David exclaims “f**k the fear” and so the performance becomes an exercise in exorcising inner demons. The band show their support for this sentiment by bringing the number to an almighty crescendo.
David’s band feature heavily throughout the concert film and seem a huge source of inspiration and encouragement in the album’s creation. Clips of David and his “brotherhood” drive home these moments of intimacy and generosity as aforementioned, and the film does so well to capture the relationship between the brotherhood. It is seen through the closeness, the long embraces and even the exchanges in Irish Gaelic which are quite striking in themselves.
The process of creating the album and bringing it to an audience was clearly a collective endeavour. Indeed emotion rises up in the voices of David’s bandmates when they speak of how being a part of his tribe has changed their lives immensely, as Gareth Quinn Redmond explains, “music is a vehicle for David to create a family.” This family inform perhaps just a few of the ‘Unholy Ghosts’ who breathe life into his music.
I last saw David Keenan in concert back in March – just days before the nation went into lockdown. For me, it was the perfect sign off before a life in isolation. Nine months later, Alchemy & Prose was the perfect antidote for a second bout of quarantine, and provided hope for a time when we might get back to see him and his peers light up the stage again. The gig shows not only how David exerts his musical genius, although it would be fine if it did, but how he extends a hand to others. In short, it is a nod to all those he holds dear and the sense of solidarity present in the film rings even truer in today’s world – a world which is very different to that of January 2020.
The tales David may have written and put to music in his own isolation, we wait to hear. But one thing is for sure, in the words of David himself as the concert comes to a close, this is the end of the beginning – not the beginning of the end.
Alchemy & Prose will be available to view on David’s YouTube channel in the coming weeks.
Photos courtesy of Stefan Tivador