What a tumultuous 18 months it has been for Conor O’Brien and friends. Less than two years into the lifespan of the band, Villagers have established themselves as one of the best live acts not just in Ireland but around the world. The amount of Youtube videos, both of Conor solo and with band in tow, is testament to that.

So what better way to round off 2010, which saw Villagers gain a top three spot in State’s albums of the year, than with an eight-date Irish tour? The fourth stop on the tour – and the first to sell – out is St John’s Church in Limerick. An old, disused church seems like the perfect place to play the haunting songs which make up Becoming A Jackal. This being a vast, high-roofed, not oft-travelled venue, the sound may be one of the first things to take a hit – that’s if you don’t take into account the high price of bottled drinks.

The Villagers live performance seems to be a two-part show: the lone Conor and acoustic on stage, and with Tommy, James, Danny and Cormac alongside him. An acoustic ‘That Day’ starts proceedings off and the crowd is quietened. It is a much slower performance of the album track and is followed by the even slow ‘Cecelia’, in Conor’s own words, a long-winded fairytale. The power of the little man’s voice is astounding as the first minute of the song sees everyone hanging on his every word.

And still no sign of the band. Keyboard man Cormac joins him for a run through of the wonderful album closer ‘To Be Counted Among Men’ and ‘The Meaning Of The Ritual’ before finally we see the rest of the group. But it is an anti-climax. Mic problems hold things back and the frustration of the band is evident.

It is not until a rampaging ‘Set The Tigers Free’ that we get a glimpse of how tight the band has become on their travels. The restraint and then full-blown assault of the song blows everyone, including the band it seems, away. New song ‘The Bell’, a rock ‘n’ roll number seems more like a band created song than anything else on show tonight and Tommy’s distorted guitar becomes the brief star of the show.

And then the band is gone again and Conor goes solo for ‘Ship Of Promises’ and two new songs after the encore. So essentially, just like that old footballing cliché, tonight is a performance of two halves. There is no doubt that Conor on his own is captivating in itself. But it is with the band behind him they reach new euphoric heights, as the show-stopping ‘Pieces’ proves. Conor’s howls ring through the church and the band leaves once more, this time with Conor behind them.

Villagers put on a magical live show, and tonight they reach where some bands can only dream of going. Conor solo is special, but it is when Villagers are a five-piece that they truly excel.

Check out all the pictures below, and click on them to make them magnificently bigger. All were taken by Brid O’Donovan.