Sunday 17 December 2017

music

John Meagher

John Meagher

Olympia, Dublin

It is the final night of Villagers' seven-week European tour and there's a celebratory feeling in the room. Conor O'Brien and friends may not sell albums in Script-like quantities, or teeter on the brink of major international acclaim a la Bell X1, but they are arguably the most critically lauded band to have emerged from Ireland in years.

Debut album Becoming A Jackal was a startling statement of intent; its follow-up Awayland – released at the beginning of the year – even better. Translating Awayland's more ambitious songs in a live setting is no easy task, however, and one can sense the quintet straining at the seams here and there as they wrestle with the complexity of the compositions.

Yet, when they get it right, they're capable of magic: 'The Waves' is a thrilling slice of art-rock, its finale a study in organised chaos, while the jaunty arrangement of 'Rhythm Composer' is executed with panache, as O'Brien sings about the tribulations of writer's block. When the band bring the tempo right down and opt for a sparser approach, one senses just how special they can be. 'The Meaning of the Ritual', an early highlight, is predominantly acoustic and all the better for it because O'Brien's beautifully observed words can be easily discerned.

Later, it's just O'Brien on stage alone with his undersized acoustic guitar as he delivers a tender, spine-tingling version of 'That Day' – a performance whose charm just about survives a good-natured heckle from an audience member during a key part of the song.

And there's something very special about the way 'The Lighthouse' is stripped back – in places the backing singing from his band is virtually a cappella.

The quality ebbs and flows elsewhere. The theatrical 'Earthly Pleasures' doesn't quite work, especially when O'Brien opts for his vocals to be electronically manipulated and 'Judgement Call' finds the band rocking out in a manner that's indistinguishable from any number of indie hopefuls in skinny jeans.

A muscular rendition of 'Ship of Promises' elevates the band above the ordinary, thanks in no small part to the efforts of drummer James Byrne and bassist Danny Snow, while a memorable 'Nothing Arrived' finds O'Brien singing his words with such fervour it is as if his life depends on it.

The sell-out crowd play their part, too, not least mid-way through the set when they indulge in a glorious call and response moment during a spirited take on 'Becoming A Jackal'. The look of unadulterated pleasure on Conor O'Brien's face says it all.

While it may not have been a perfect homecoming, it's a show that offers a further reminder that Villagers are a singular Irish band that deserved to be treasured.

Irish Independent

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