An Earthly pleasure.

Villagers – Whelan’s (13th November 2012)

The day Conor O’Brien retweeted my desperate plea for tickets to his sold-out Whelan’s show was a Godsend. Perhaps he was amused by the fact I was offering my soul as payment, or perhaps he’s just a kind bloke; either way, I am forever grateful. Not only am I grateful to Conor, but I’m also grateful to Philip, the man who sold me a ticket (And gladly accepted money instead of my soul) and to the lovely Darragh Cullen and his father Paul who not only let me chill with them, but also gave me a lift home so I didn’t have to chase around after the elusive number 7 bus.

The first time I saw Villagers was in 2009. They were the opening act for Neil Young and I think it’s safe to say that they took everyone in the O2 that night by surprise. I recall that it was one of those rare occasions where you politely pause to acknowledge the support band, turn back to your conversation and then suddenly it happens; they turn out to be utterly amazing and you’re not quite sure whether you should believe your ears. Nevertheless, I bought their Hollow Kind EP on the night, and now I can’t find it anywhere which is gutting, but it sparked a love affair with the young Dun Laoghaire band (Big-up the hometown!) and I’ve seen him about three times since then.

For those who aren’t familiar with Villagers, knowing whether to refer to them as them or he can be rather confusing. You see, initially the idea seemed to be that Conor O’Brien was a multi-instrumentalist, playing everything on the albums himself, so in that regard, Villagers was almost a solo alias. However, when he went on tour, although he would oftentimes play solo shows, on other occasions he would have a band with him. Confused yet? I know how you feel.

Now though, Villagers seems to have evolved very much into a proper band. The sound of the first few singles released from upcoming album {Awayland} is far more full, if you will, and interestingly, in both the new songs and old, he refers to us or we rather than I or me. Concious or not, I think it says a lot about the direction that the ‘project,’ as I recall him referring to it once, is taking.

After nine o’clock, the audience chatter started to dissipate and an apprehensive excitement began to build. Whilst everyone was no doubt excited to hear the new material from {Awayland}, I think it’s safe to say that we were all a little nervous as to how the new sound was going to translate into the live environment. We needn’t have worried. As Villagers took to the stage to rapturous applause, it was clear that we were all about to witness a show for the ages. Conor and his four-piece band (Cormac Curran, Danny Snow, James Byrne and Tommy McLaughlin) were ready to treat the packed out venue to something unique, yet something very familiar.

“We’ve played here two million times – this is our two millionth-and-first gig, but this place is always special; it’s home,” confessed Conor, as he addressed his eager onlookers. The band began with three songs from the first album, Set The Tigers Free, Home and The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever), easing us in before the barrage of new material.

In fact, they had decided that they were going to play so many new songs that Conor even saw fit to warn us: “Tonight we’re going to do lots of new material… I hope that’s okay.” We cheered enthusiastically. “That’s good,” he replied, “because it would have been awkward if it wasn’t.” Eleven out of the nineteen-song set ended up being from the new album, and my goodness did they go down well. The more electronically-influenced tracks were befittingly accompanied by a seriously impressive light show that was at times both utterly beautiful, yet thoroughly blinding.

Whilst the band were on top form, it was clear that their instruments were not, encountering slight technical hiccups as they tried to re-tune between songs. “Wait! I have a machine for this,” Conor exclaimed as he tried, albeit in vain, to tune his tired guitar, “The machine lies!” he continued as the tuner failed to, well, tune. A relentless tour had not been kind to their instruments, nor to Conor’s voice—though if he hadn’t pointed it out, I don’t think anyone would have noticed.

Although I could literally spend forever talking you through the set; about how the new songs intertwined perfectly with the old, how Conor’s voice, despite strained, still sounds pretty much perfect, and how the new sound allows O’Brien to take full advantage of his talented Village People, I shan’t, for they don’t need me to. Anyone who loved Becoming a Jackal will adore the new songs, even if they’re feeling a little sceptical of the electronically-bolstered sound. What I will say, though, is that {Awayland} is shaping up to be a fabulous album, each track as compelling as the last, and I for one am seriously looking forward to getting my hands on it, if for nothing else than to enthuse to you all about how much I’ve fallen in love with it.

I must warn you, however, that intimate venues like Whelan’s just aren’t going to be quite big enough for Conor and Co. any more, so if you’re looking to see them in the near future, March 21st in The Olympia Theatre will be your next opportunity. Tickets are priced at a very reasonable €25 and I’d suggest heading over to Ticketmaster as soon as you can; judging by the speed at which this gig sold out, well, it wouldn’t surprise me if The Olympia is set to follow suit.

{Awayland} is due to be released on the 14th January 2013.

Photo by Paul Cullen

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