Conor O’Brien and the Villagers take to a familiar stage in front of a packed house in Whelans: “We’ve played here two million times. This is our two millionth-and-first gig, but this place is always special – it’s home.” Villagers have just completed a long tour opening for Grizzly Bear around Europe. They are finally home and ready to focus on promoting their second album Awayland which is due for release in January.
Their loyal fanbase is out in force to welcome them back. It has been a long wait for the follow up to their phenomenally successful debut album, Becoming a Jackal, a Mercury prize nominee in 2010. Those who have attended gigs in the interim have been treated to snippets of new material and over the last year the number of new songs featured in shows has grown and with it anticipation.
O’Brien opens within his comfort-zone with ‘Set the Tigers Free’, ‘Home’ and ‘The Pact’ all tracks from the bands first offering. The Villagers toured the album for two years almost non-stop. O’Brien’s mastery of these songs allows him to toy with them; he experiments by taking them in new directions. For some, like ‘That Day’, he pares them back completely delivering them alone with just his guitar, but with others he invites the contribution of his band. The latter is the new direction that the Villagers are taking on their forthcoming album.
Becoming a Jackal was O’Brien’s in all but name. For the album he played all the instruments, wrote the lyrics and the music himself. The band joined him on stage to perform the songs because there are only so many instruments one person can play. However, things are different now. O’Brien is one of the most complete musical talents on the Irish music scene but with the few years maturity he is not afraid to enlist the help of his band in the making of the new record. In doing so he is embracing the contributions of his talented band members as he seeks a fuller sound. He still has control of the lyrics but the musical monopoly that he commanded over the first album seems to have been relinquished. In a short note on the bands website he describes the direction taken for Awayland, “I sure as hell don’t want to lose any intimacy in the music, but I need to take this intimacy into a more vibrant place. The furrowed-brow vocal seriousness which I used to engage with has no place here.” O’Brien is venturing into unknown territory. He knows that releasing Jackal mark II would placate his fans but in terms of his development it would be pointless so he is embracing the band cooperative in order to take his music forward.
O’Brien, in his characteristically reserved way, gives the audience warning of what is on the menu, “Tonight we’re going to do lots of new material. I hope that’s ok.” The tightly packed crowd whoops its approval and he replies, “Good, because that would have been awkward if it wasn’t.” The new album’s songs still bear the hallmarks of the first with his penchant for a sharp lyric and his enchanting vocals remaining centre stage but they are no longer alone as the furnishings have been worked on with extensive in-put from band members: Cormac Curran, Danny Snow, James Byrne and Tommy McLaughlin. They join him for backing vocals on ‘The Bell’ giving it a more layered sound. They turn punk for ‘Earthly Pleasure’. They strum guitars together for ‘Nothing Arrived’ with Conor howling the vocals, banging drums while strobe lights flash. The tough touring schedule has clearly taken a toll on O’Brien’s voice as he coughs between songs and drinks plenty of water but his enunciation is still immaculate when needed on the more intimate and familiar sounding ‘My Lighthouse’. The crowd slips easily under his spell. O’Brien gives us the title track from his first album and there is a warning held in one of its lyrics, “So before you take this song as truth/ You should wonder what I’m taking from you/ How I benefit from you being here/ Lending me your ears while I’m selling you my fears.” Clearly it is give and take as O’Brien tests the new material on his audience.
The new single ‘The Waves’ mixes light electro-funk beats with O’Brien’s bouncing lyrics and epitomises their exciting new direction. The audience is warming to the new track as it builds towards a loud crescendo with the bands new, more united, sound washing over the audience. Based on tonight’s performance the album will be worth the wait.
As O’Brien salutes the adoring crowd and mentions a special thanks to family and friends of the band who are up in the pew above saying, “We’re glad to have you here. It’s been a while but we’ll be with you soon” before launching into the last song of the night, a familiar one, ‘On a Sunlit Stage’. The intimate setting of Whelans may not be able to house this band for much longer. January, and their second album, will see another crest in their popularity. Their next Dublin date is March in the Olympia and by that stage fans will be equipped with a copy of Awayland and smaller gigs will be talked about with reverence. They are no longer a solo act.
Set the Tigers Free
The Pact (I’ll be your fever)
Passing a Message
Becoming a Jackal
The Meaning of the Ritual
Ship of Promises
In a Newfoundland You Are Free
On a Sunlight Stage