Dermot Kennedy refreshes the singer-songwriter as rockstar hits YouTube Theater

Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy lit up the YouTube Theater on Friday night with his band, taking center stage on guitar, playing piano and seriously owning the stage as he sang his heart out. The Sonder Tour’s North American dates launched earlier this month, he just headlined two nights at Red Rocks, makes his debut at Madison Square Garden on June 12 and wraps June 20 in New Jersey. Kennedy brought along some heavy-hitting singer-songwriters as opening acts, including Brooklyn-based soul-leaning singer Kevin Garrett as well as Los Angeles’ own folk-pop artist Jensen McRae for a rather memorable night of live music.

Jensen McRae shared four songs including new, unreleased material in a sharp black shirt with white stripes and a black skirt, taking the stage under purple spotlights for “If That’s What You Want,” an unreleased song with gentle strumming and an effortless vocal that lifted and crescendoed throughout. “I am so unbelievably honored to open for Dermot Kennedy in my hometown,” said McRae. Her 2022 tune “My Ego Dies At The End” showcased so much purity in her voice, beautiful and heartfelt with inviting “oh oh ohs” at the end, with the crowd seriously moved. Following the song she mentioned its meaning, about “having to lose yourself to know yourself.” McRae continued with “Wolves,” which she described as “about being a woman and being afraid,” carefully picking acoustically with thoughtful emotion coming through her vocals. There was folk magic on this one and she is a masterful, believable storyteller. “I spoil you guys, I’m so generous, with my shiny hair that I got done for tonight,” and she was also talking about playing her unreleased material. She talked about how important laughter is following a noticeable chuckle from the audience and went into the new tune “Let Me Be Wrong” —a total hit with a pop-rock drive about perfectionism and the human need to welcome mistakes, with the lyric “I’ve been good too long, let me be wrong.”

Kevin Garrett was another stellar opener, starting off with moody ballad “A Heart Like Yours,” accompanied by a keys player and drummer, sounding as soulful as ever and picking up to an exciting, cinematic sound, strong both in his head voice and falsetto. “Stranglehold” opened as a ballad that turns into a mid-tempo with memorable beats and a totally hypnotic vocal from the singer. “The next song is called “Tell You How I’m Feeling” and if I’m being honest, pretty fucking cool,” said Garrett ahead of the R&B tune that found him in his groove. He introduced keyboardist Will Wells and continued with “Faith You Might” on acoustic guitar, while the pretty piano led the way along with a light tapping of mallets by drummer Al Cleveland III, who Garrett later introduced. It was a truly beautiful piece of songwriting and the arrangement was perfect. Garrett did a little TikTok video with fans and sang “Coloring” almost entirely in his falsetto. One of Garrett’s best was next, the 2017 tune “Little BIt of You,” sounding like a classic R&B song that could give anyone chills. Last song “Factor In” offered another excellent vocal over pulsing beats and timeless piano chords.

Dermot Kennedy played a total of 18 songs, eight of which are off 2022 album Sonder, for 100 minutes with barely any stops and no encore, just business. Dramatic sound design with moments of piano and synth effects turned into a wondrous score of strings and piano with some voices garbled together urgently. Kennedy took center stage in a black jacket and sporty-casual nylon-looking pants. His voice was powerful as expected on “Blossom,” with two background singers (Elize and James Bradshaw) joining him on stage along with a guitarist Kieran Jones, keyboard player (and musical director) Benjamin Keys and drummer Michael Quinn. The whole production from start to finish felt like a big rock concert with instrumentation that felt more like a band than your typical singer-songwriter show, absolutely perfect for YouTube Theater’s brilliant sound and lighting capabilities. A giant lighting structure was set in the middle of the stage, hitting Kennedy in just the right spots throughout the night and at moments he performed atop a slightly angled central stage structure that had a thin outline of light outlining the rising star.

Transitioning almost immediately from the show opener, single “Power Over Me” brought pounding drum beats from Quinn, with Kennedy on acoustic guitar. The entire audience seemed to be singing along as blue and white lights flashed, with blurry silhouetted people splashed on a massive screen behind the band. Kennedy had a brief moment of vocals only with the instruments stopping and finally the Elize and Bradshaw hauntingly echoed the singer’s “mm mms.” Sonder standout “One Life” took on the urgency of life with red and blue symbolizing ambulance colors, moving the crowd with “ooh oohs” from the background singers. The gospel hints in the song were rocked up with drums and Kennedy’s refrains were sung passionately.

Yellows lit up Kennedy on the large light structure during “An Evening I Will Never Forget,” and he asked the fans, “Everyone ready to sing with me tonight?” having already started the song. The faint piano keys were full of hope, along with the drums as Kennedy sang and the entire crowd looked like they knew the lyrics, echoing the words. Fast highways and cityscapes sped past the band with Kennedy’s voice belting and the guitar and drums smashing by the end. It was and is the type of song that people hold close especially when they are lonely or feeling bruised and it was one of the first of many moments that infuse a bit of Kennedy’s hip-hop sound with his poetry. The crowd joined in on “Lost” as well, singing to the mid-tempo, with cheers as Kennedy made his way across the stage, singing with intention again and getting the crowd going during the feel-good, lively tune. “It’s good to see you, it’s been a long time,” said Kennedy. “A lot of music in between. Whenever you found this music, I hope there’s something for you.” He started off “Young & Free” on acoustic guitar atop the angled platform, with stunning projections of the Brooklyn Bridge behind him and later doves flying, soaring vocally as his eye closed while channeling this nostalgic moment. Live, it felt like Imagine Dragons-level anthem status.

Heartfelt ballad “Dreamer” found a simple spotlight on Kennedy, with his guitarist playing, passionately singing the line “I can’t keep the rain away.” The incredible arrangement with piano and background voices added was truly stunning as white lights were shining all around. One day this will be performed with strings in an orchestra and people will be talking. The crowd sang along, emphasizing “something” and an audio voiceover offered all kinds of inspiring words, namely “celebrate who we are, aspire to become better versions of ourselves” and the imagery gave slight Nine Inch Nails all while being a true anthem for self-worth and mental health. The folk-gospel of “Moments Passed” had an intense production, like the recording, with Kennedy now in his baggy t-shirt on acoustic guitar, singing and doing some sort of spoken word, giving the energy of an early 2000s The Streets. Blue and white screens with clouds were ethereal as Kennedy was sang hard while the band was silhouetted during some outstanding instrumentation. Strobes in black and white hovered across the theater with hot drums during the gospel-leaning “Glory,” with the whole place repeated the song title beautifully throughout as Kennedy took everyone to church.

Dermot Kennedy sat at the keyboard with a pair of spotlights on him, “How is everyone, you OK? I’m very, very happy to be here so thank you. I need you to do something with me on this one, for yourself but I’ll be doing it too. Imagine if you can, whatever day in your past feels closest. Whatever day that, to you, it’s a beautiful memory to go back to. Do your very best to transport yourself. That’s what I do and that’s what this song is about.” He also promised that he would talk with the crowd more on another song. It was a killer vocal at the piano, with Kennedy stopping with just chords mid-song saying, “Just let that light represent whatever day or time was best for you.” Camera lights were up as he was singing “do you remember when” and he let his fans sing the chorus in a rather powerful moment, ending off with the pretty “oohs” that close out the tune. “That song springs to mind memories to me,” shared Kennedy. He added a story about a midnight drive, playing a girl a song her wrote about her and then said, “what a creepy thing” to be driving late at night with a girl, playing a song about her. “It’s romantic but extremely creepy at the same time,” he joked with his fans. “I was thinking today about this town and how it’s influenced me and this music. It’s as if you really do come here with your bag over your back; you show up with your songs and hope for the best. You try to be open and guarded but also try to be open to the magic of it. I think it’s an easy place to be critical of what you do. I’m sort of grateful to spend so much time here. When you feel doubtful it’s when the best songs come.” He mentioned recording the next song with friend Scott Harris who was in the crowd and it was perhaps Kennedy’s most deeply emotional song on the new album. With Kennedy simply on the keys, “Innocence and Sadness” was off with deep, dark, brilliant chords, his voice gravelly and perfect. “Better savor every moment as it flies by” resonated and fans were noticeably seen crying or with water in their eyes. The piano outro was stunning, just listening and breathing and playing chords as he talked. “What’s your biggest fear?,” asked Kennedy. “Just time passing by” was his answer. “It’s always at the front of my mind,” he said while hitting the chords, continuing, “No matter how powerful love or a relationship is, eventually it ends. No matter how much it scares me it compels me, pushes me. The time we have is brief so just cherish it, you know? Just always be mindful of that. I forget it too, being away from home. Be very mindful that we don’t have unlimited time with the people we love.” It was a tear-jerking moment with more sniffles in the crowd and a signal to the room that Dermot Kennedy truly is a poet.

Dermot Kennedy was back to center stage with his guitar for “Outnumbered” under beautiful orange lighting, like rays of the sun. The background singers brought the feels on a choral moment, elevated with the audience joining in. “I really appreciate how much you’ve been singing, but this is the one,” Kennedy said to his fans ahead of “After Rain,” center stage on guitar atop the riser with the strip of blue bulbs behind him. It was a rock concert once again by the end, with the guitars and drums working overtime and the crowd singing “you won’t go lonely.” His debut album’s title track “Without Fear” featured the grit in Kennedy’s voice, with electric guitar in hand for the delicate ballad as “WE DON’T GIVE UP” flashed on the screen behind him in bold. It was an angelic intro for Kennedy’s global smash “Better Days,” with wonderful color added from the background singers on what sounded like a huge rock moment in a stadium.

Warm pastels and neons floated across the screen for the feel-good love song “Homeward.” Dermot Kennedy introduced his spectacular band and continued with “Kiss Me” as pinks and purples enveloped the stage, for a pulsating pop-rock tune that was exhilarating to experience live topped off with catchy “oohs.” Dermot Kennedy’s The Sonder Tour was a spiritual experience from front to back, with stellar production value across the board and show closer “Something To Someone” cemented his place in the music stratosphere, a bit darker and more intense than Ed Sheeran and as commanding as Hozier, but less folky and maybe with a bit more grit in his voice. “There are so many people who traveled long distances or bought tickets a while ago,” said Kennedy. “Last show in LA was three years ago, I sincerely hope it’s not that long until I see you.” The folk-pop song has a pulse that is nearly uptempo, shining with all of the voices together, capturing a message we can all look to as we better ourselves, appreciating one another. The strobe lights beautifully blazed across the stage for a prayer-like moment as the crowd joined in on the entire chorus for an epic ending. 

Catch Dermot Kennedy on The Sonder Tour as it makes its way across North America through June 20.

Words by Michael Menachem
Images by Nicole Ditt