Villagers – Festaal Kreuzberg – Wednesday, February 27
EVERYTHING that was great about Villagers performing at Festaal Kreuzberg last week can be explained in the discussion of one song.
Before we delve in, though, a bit of housekeeping. Villagers, a band from Ireland, make earnest, kind of literary pop music. They have released two full-length records, the second of which, Awayland, came out last month. It is pretty and sonically interesting and it has a few great songs but it left me kind of cold. It was too ambitious – too many ideas jostling for too little space – and lyrically overdone.
Records don’t hold the cache they once did, though – too cheap to make and easy to steal – so the only bucks left are in the live show. And that’s a definite boon for Villagers, who managed to wring the out the excess from Awayland to deliver a sleek, highly enjoyable 90 minutes of pop music.
Singer and songwriter Conor O’Brien leads the band. For the first half hour, he says little to the audience, but slowly begins to unfurl. He is the most interesting of the five of them to watch: his head jerks as he sings, as if the songs ring so true for him they bring on twitches. During ‘The Bell’, a highlight of the set, he picks up drum sticks and begins walloping a few skins. It’s a gimmick – it really made no difference to the sound – but it’s charming. Conor is a likeable frontman. He is pale-skinned and appears bashful and shy. At one point, he asks the room to name his guitar (they choose George); he ends every song with a polite “danke schön”.
What really made this a show, though, and not simply a reproduction of a record that was available at the merch desk, was evidenced in ‘The Wave’. ‘The Wave’ is the song to which I earlier referred. It’s an apt title: the first few minutes seem calm and uneventful, then the climax builds – high hats open, guitar squall starts rising in pitch, O’Brien repeats the words “approaching the shore” – and the whole thing begins its elegant role toward whitewash. At Festaal Kreuzberg, that climax brought home the grand difference between Villagers live and Villagers on record. As ‘The Wave’ neared its end, guitar player Tommy McLaughlin and bassist Danny Snow were falling around and crashing into each other. O’Brien abandoned his acoustic, pogo-sticked around the stage singing the final refrain, and then collapsed onto the bass drum. It typified what made the set so much more compelling than the record. The show wasn’t affected; it wasn’t too clever or too complex and didn’t foreground O’Brien’s sometimes-clumsy, highly emotional lyrics. It was strangely kind of 1980s US hardcore: a bunch of friends, with days of driving and playing and not sleeping behind them and the same ahead, giving it all their remaining energy and expecting nothing much in return.
There was a decent encore and the show ended with ‘Grateful Song’, from Awayland. I caught myself smiling. I had wanted to root for this young, precocious band from the start. I heard their record and thought I couldn’t. I saw their live show and realised I could.
Review by Paul Donoughue