Nick Carswell was living in his native Ireland when he first fell under the spell of Damien Rice.
“To me, Damien Rice, and really I’m talking about his breakthrough record ‘O,’ was kind of the pinnacle of the Irish singer/songwriter scene that peaked in the early 2000s,” Carswell told The Star recently. “I was in college in Dublin at that time, and we were just spoiled with a really amazing homegrown music scene.”
In 2011, Carswell and his wife, Hannah, moved to Lawrence, where a job awaited her. He has since become a member of two bands, Carswell & Hope and Pink Royal, and a board member with the Kansas City Irish Center.
Friday night, Carswell will participate in a tribute to Damien Rice at the new Kansas City Irish Center in Drexel Hall, 3301 Baltimore Ave. The center bought the 14,000-square-foot building in September and fully moved in this month. Carswell volunteered to put together a celebratory show that would showcase the different sides of Irish music, art and culture.
“After that, it was just a matter of finding the people who were into it and could do it. With Damien Rice, that isn’t hard. We’ve got some great musicians taking part in this event,” he said.
“When you talk about Irish music, most people might know of the Chieftains or the Clancy Brothers, and, of course, many people know Glen Hansard and ‘Once.’ But if you manage to get talking to someone who’s heard a Frames album, then you’re kind of in the golden territory of the modern phase of Irish music and Irish singer/songwriters.”
The album “O,” released in 2002, put Rice, 42, among the upper-class of his generation’s songwriters. Carswell said the album’s rewards go beyond Rice’s songwriting chops.
“I think what makes ‘O’ stand out is, like David Gray’s ‘White Ladder’ around the same time, it inhabited a special place where people could listen to it again and again, and it became as personal to their lives as the bedroom they slept in, or their girlfriend or boyfriend at that time,” he said.
“Musically, Damien’s sound was so well-formed and richly produced. While the core of his sound and songwriting was essentially him and his guitar, the production and arrangements elevated his songs,” Carswell said. “The cello and Lisa Hannigan’s voice made his songs bigger and richer than just him, which I think appealed to me most.”
Carswell said “O” has sustained its lofty legend more than 14 years after its release in part because Rice has not produced anything to match it.
“I also think the fact that he never reached the high notes of his debut again, at least in my opinion, probably preserves some of its mystique,” he said. “He had come across as aloof in some interviews following the initial success of ‘O’ and has not had a huge presence nor been particularly prolific, so in some ways he hasn’t ruined the magic of that one record.”
The Kansas City Irish Center’s move to Drexel Hall makes it one of the biggest Irish centers in the country, Carswell said, which can only help the center’s mission prosper.
“The hope is that the center continues to grow as a hub for Irish arts and culture in the Midwest,” he said. “For people like myself and others, that also means looking at what contemporary Irish music and arts are producing. Ireland continues to change, and celebrating what is currently coming out of Ireland is important to us. This concert is somewhat of a precursor to that.”
“And So It Is: A Tribute to Damien Rice” starts at 7 p.m. Friday at the Kansas City Irish Center, 3301 Baltimore Ave. Performers will include Carswell & Hope, Katlyn Conroy, Anna Cook, Nicholas St. James, the Good Hearts and Damon Bailey. Admission is $8. The show will include a performance of “O” in its entirety.