Reminiscing: Villagers’ {Awayland} Tour

Photo: Rich Gilligan

Villagers – they’ve kept their place as one of my personal favourites for some time now, but only in the last year have they stuck in my mind as one of the most talented and musically inspiring groups I’ve had the pleasure of coming across. Drawn in by a breath-taking performance seeping with energy last summer at Green Man Festival, I had to see the Dublin-based five-piece in all their glory on their {Awayland} tour.

So, naturally I rose to the opportunity of seeing the band again in London’s famous Heaven nightclub. A crowd of Villager followers filled the elongated but intimate space, right back to the bar where copious beers were being pulled and ciders decanted into plastic cups. The lights dimmed and onto the stage, one by one, emerged the shadows outlining the members of the Irish ensemble – last to enter being front-man Conor O’Brien.

This is the first and the only date the band performed in London for their November/December tour, promoting their latest album {Awayland} that was released earlier in 2013 and nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize. In fact, this is not their first Mercury nomination; their 2010 debut album Becoming a Jackal also swept up great critical acclaim and gained its place in the ranks.

What exactly is it about Villagers that places them on another pedestal from the rest? It doesn’t take long to recognise that front-man O’Brien is to be held responsible. He appears, stood slightly in front of the clan of his bandmates; small-framed, timid faced with recently cut, child-like hair and a stage presence of a simple nature that promises to tell nothing but honesty in his song writing and the way he delivers it. It’s only in the more fierce tracks that require a ferocity in their deliverance that we see O’Brien’s alter ego, liberated when he performs.

A purge of sound from the piano, guitars and percussion with the quavering falsetto vocals from O’Brien unite in a climax of pure togetherness that sends shivers to the spine. Suddenly, the endearing and coy twenty-something becomes a man on stage with an emotional tale to tell. Setting free a surge of euphoria in his performance but with honest heart ache, we hear stories flooded with constant pangs of pain told with a blunt integrity.

Amidst the air of anticipation, the quintet begins with ‘My Lighthouse’ – the first on the track list of the album. A subtle and tender inauguration to the set list, we’re eased into O’Brien’s gentle storytelling through slow paced calming vocals while simultaneously propelled into a world of death, loss and anguish. This very anguish seems to be a principle theme reflected by the lyrics in the album, yet there is an honest innocence with a streak of optimism to the way it sounds.

As the album artwork suggests, we are hearing stories through the perception of a child with a juvenile curiosity. From this, we can understand the ebb and flow of the music and label the lack of clarity to the meaning of the lyrics as artistic style. Much like the profound couplet in ‘Ship of Promises’, “I’ll meet you in between what I say and what I mean”, it’s clear that allowing his listeners a coherent understanding of what the songs actually mean was not on top of O’Brien’s list of priorities.

Aside from exceptional live charisma, Villagers endow excellent musicality and most especially, outstanding lyrics. Song writing – more diverse in topic and quality now than ever before – can be an element of music that can be paid attention or plainly ignored. In most cases, that is, for the lyrics of the Villagers are integral to the artistry of their sound. Each song tells a story in a way that echoes traditional song writing with modernistic finesse.

Saturated with imagery and metaphors of creatures, love and death, the creative flair of the lyrics question whether we’re merely listening to a song or hearing a work of art. Under what is often chipper and upbeat lurks underlying screams of despair prompting us to wonder what on earth happened to O’Brien for him to be able to produce such beautifully orchestrated melancholy.

And to conclude one of the most heartfelt live performances I’ve ever known, an encore from Villagers would not be an encore if it did not include ‘Twenty Seven Strangers’ from their debut. As one their most notable songs, the earliest of fans in the crowd are reminded exactly what drew them to love the band in the first place. Through its cutting edge build ups right to its very last soothing harmony unlike any heard in the industry today, we are left in awe when the show comes to an end.

With a youthful beam from O’Brien, a few modest thank-yous and without much fuss, the group took their leave from the stage and prepared for the next leg of their tour, leaving myself in awe of which I am still recovering to this day.

Photo: Rich Gilligan

Photo: Rich Gilligan

 

 

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