LIVE: SYML (& Dermot Kennedy) at Upstate Concert Hall 3/1/2020
So I generally try to go to a concert educated on the music, but this time I fell short. I attended the Dermot Kennedy show on relatively short notice, and in doing so I failed in familiarizing myself with Kennedy’s music which allowed me to attend his show with a clear, unbiased perspective. The same cannot be said for the supporting act, SYML, who I am very much a fan of. With those disclosures out in the open, let’s dive right in.
The opening act was Seattle-based Brian Fennell, or as he is known in the music world, SYML. SYML, formerly of the band Barcelona, is generally a one-man all-encompassing songwriting, producing, and performing entity. However, during an anecdote, SYML stated that he picked up a musician somewhere along his tour, a fellow Brian nonetheless. Brian offered violin and piano accompaniments to SYML’s largely mellow music.
During a break in his set, you got to see his charming and laid back demeanor when he took questions from the audience. He indulged audience members by answering questions such as “What is your favorite triangle?”(he was non-committal, so I’ll decide for him and say isosceles because he has a song called “Symmetry”) and “Will you accept any more Brians on stage?” (Jury’s still out on that.)
One thing that stood out to me about the set is what draws me to SYML’s music in general. Most of it revolves around the core components of music: the music and the lyrics. It is not about a light show or manic stage presence. It isn’t about layers upon layers of production, even though SYML’s eponymous album and a song or two on his set does contain some of that. The show is focused around heartfelt and raw words he wrote. They are songs like “Girl,” an adoring letter to his young daughter. They are like “Flags” which is about dealing with cancer, and are about love and loss and all that life has to offer, good and bad. Each note and soaring falsetto carries with it a refreshing honesty. If your heartstrings haven’t been yanked on by the end of SYML’s set, you clearly weren’t paying attention.
Setlist: Symmetry, The Bird, Girl, Clean Eyes, Flags, Where’s My Love, Dancing On My Own (Robyn cover), Everything All At Once
Now if you’ll humor me, it seems like as good of a time as any to climb up on a soapbox. I will never understand the people who only come to see the headliner. Headliners themselves often got their start as supporting acts, and the way that these musicians gain enough traction to make it to their own tours is the exposure they get. It’s through the audience members buying their merch and music, and putting eyes and ears on them at live shows. You are how they earn their living. Not to mention, the price of your admission ticket is partly to see them. You’ve gotta get your money’s worth, right? Why “waste” the entertainment value by not showing up? You don’t have to buy an entire discography on Amazon like I did once, but give these musicians your time. They count on you. It’s musicians like SYML that really make me look at people who stroll in right before the headliner like they’re nuts. Why would you miss a performance like that!? (There’s my bias speaking.)
Like I said above, I was a Dermot Kennedy virgin, but like most virgins after their first night, my deflowering left me feeling unsatisfied. That’s not to say he was bad, not in the slightest. But there was a lot lacking, in my opinion. From the moment he took the stage, everything felt lackluster. It was a sold out show, but the audience made hardly any noise relative to the amount of bodies packed into the music hall. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might not have even noticed that he took the stage. One could argue that it was SYML’s job to hype the audience up. But after hearing both of them perform, it just wasn’t really that kind of show. Any energy would have petered out during Kennedy’s set because, like SYML in a way, it was more of a focus on the lyrics and the music and less on the stage personas.
Kennedy stood center stage, lit from behind so he was but a shadowy silhouette. This was more or less how the lighting design remained the whole show. He was the only musician you could see with clarity, accented by dramatic shifting spotlights, while the rest of his bandmates were set farther upstage, obscured by thick smoke from the fog machines. I want to see and acknowledge the hard work that the band mates are putting in, and the lighting setup just didn’t allow for that.
Kennedy has a very gravelly rasp, one that is full of natural cracks and breaks. This added an extra layer of angst in each note. I love myself a voice like that and I was enjoying his music; I really do and I really was, but after forty five minutes or so it all started to feel repetitive. Each song felt like it had the same texture, the same angst, and the same thrumming beat. But I can respect a musician who knows what they are good at and is able to keep on doing it, and that could be why he had a sold out audience eating up every note. You can tell that he’s a songwriter, one who believes in what he sings and what he writes and that it all comes from deep within. His songs had this bewitching ability to seize at nostalgia buried within me, cajoling loose memories I can’t quite place. I heard some really beautiful lyrics that carried me along on these journeys and romantic nights. In particular, the lines from his song “Rome”: Do you remember when / midnight drives when you’d sing / I’d play you songs you were in? / I just want to be there again / Do you remember when / with Rome below us that day / You said, “I wish we could stay?.”
I guess one final thing that left me feeling a bit starved was that Kennedy (or his team) made the interesting and atypical choice to leave us without an encore performance. He played his set and that was it. Wipe your hands of it, house lights up, done with it. I never fully understood why we as an audience carry out the encore performance tradition since everyone expects an encore anyway, but now I suppose I know why. It’s because it feels empty and abrupt without one. Or is that simply the result of concert muscle memory, in a which-came-first-chicken-or-the-egg kind of way? Have we come to expect it so it feels unsatisfying, or is it actually unsatisfying because it is an abrupt end? Perhaps I’m just overthinking it. Nobody asked me for a philosophy session…
It’s easy to see why an audience loves Dermot Kennedy. He’s a strong-jawed good looking Irishman with a gruff singing voice that oozes life’s experiences undergone by others from all walks of life. His sold-out venue packed with warm bodies singing along is enough to make that more than clear. But I, the layman, was left feeling hungry for just a little more, like that itch wasn’t quite scratched. I don’t know if it’s because he didn’t have an encore, because of the isolating lighting design, or if it was just me and my preferences and there was nothing to be done. I am just one person’s opinion after all. I guess you’ll have to listen and decide for yourself.
Setlist: An Evening I Will Not Forget, Lost, All My Friends, What Have I Done, Moments Passed, The Corner, Couldn’t Tell, Rome, Outnumbered, For Island Fires and Family, Glory, Without Fear, Redemption, Power Over me, After Rain