It’s a common thing, really. A musician plays a song during a show and realizes that his guitar is out of tune. But for fans of Villagers—a five-piece indie folk band hailing from Dublin—that’s a moment to spark up a conversation with the musicians on stage (After all, what else is there to do?).
“Is that a toy classical guitar?” asked a dedicated fan standing in front of the stage as frontman Conor O’Brien tuned. “It’s so small.” O’Brien hugged the guitar with his petite frame. His piercing, puppy-dog eyes met the eyes of the probing fan, and he jokingly replied, “No, it’s because I’m small.”
Similarly, O’Brien’s mellow vocals on songs like My Lighthouse and In A Newfound Land You Are Free from the new album Awayland, might suggest that Villagers’ music, while infectious, is just that: minimalistic and unassuming. Their intimate concert at the Bowery Ballroom last night, however, showed a more ferocious side—which could neither be tamed nor stopped. And it all seemed to begin with an unexpected yelp, triggered by the kind of thunderous guitar and percussion that would make your bones shiver.
For the folksy The Bell, the lights were dimmed and a full-on stomping fest ensued, along with strident guitar and drum work that cascaded through the crowd. O’Brien lowered his body as he strummed his guitar, letting out a tender squeal that resonated long after the song had ended: “There’s a sleeping dog under this dialogue,” he sang. “Obedient only to rhyme/But if I could beckon her/If I could find the words/All they would be is lies.”
The band’s cookie-cutter persona was left by the roadside when O’Brien ditched his guitar for a set of drums beside him, which he beat continuously, at one point knocking over a drink that was propped on another drum nearby. The lights began flickering while concertgoers moved rhythmically to the riveting sounds of “The Waves.” Villagers’ follow-up “Judgment Call,” got a similar reception with its unsettling hook, as did “Earthly Pleasure,” a well-crafted song showcasing O’Brien’s knack for telling absorbing, physically draining tales. “Naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth,” sang O’Brien. “When he suddenly acquired an overwhelming sense of doubt/Every single piece of baggage he’d been holding on his back/Was beginning to d-d-dig in and then his back began to crack.”
Even when O’Brien took on a preachy, storybook intonation that would cause some minds to wander (“Ship of Promises”), ears remained fixed. Later the band dissolved, leaving the singer-songwriter on stage to perform “That Day.” He stood on the stark stage, confidently delivering melancholy melodies that, while tragic, were altogether beautiful. The same could be said of “The Meaning of the Ritual,” which found him confessing his shortcomings: “My love is selfish/And it cares not who it hurts/ It will cut you out to satisfy its thirst.” At times, the crooner appeared aloof as he stared at the crowd. It was as if he were playing music in his own bedroom—serenading a lover even—only to be greeted by interlopers. Lost in his own world, he was unperturbed by screaming fans who showered him with praise he seemed uncomfortable accepting, though it was well deserved.