villagers Savoy 1(All pictures by Brid O’Donovan)

Here’s the first quote that Drowned in Sound used in an interview with Conor O’Brien last week: “I remember when The Immediate went to London. We went to a big, ridiculous lawyers office who charged us a lot of money and he just looked at us and we felt like little schoolboys. He sat down and said, ‘This is why it’s not going to work for you. Kings of Leon, you hear them and you know what they sound like straight away. You’ve got to get a sound and you’ve got to get a manifesto, people need to know what you’re about.’ I always see music and art as something that exists because it is able to infiltrate in between all the opinions, analysis, politics and all these things. It can kind of go inside all of them and cut through them a little bit. Music and words together can open up this other world that’s more than the sum of its parts.”

On Tuesday night, Conor brought his Villagers to the cavernous Savoy, opened to its own fanfare as Cork’s newest superclub a couple months ago. It was pretty much sold out for this, the penultimate city on their European tour – two dates in Dublin are sold out tomorrow and Friday.

Out On A Limb artist Owensie was tasked with opening proceedings, a big challenge with people still filing in in their droves. He and his band try their best, but when you have to plead with the audience to be quiet so he can play a song – shush the shit out of this place, he implored – you know things aren’t going too great. I was worried that Villagers might suffer from chatty audience syndrome, too. I needn’t have worried.

villagers savoy 2

They start off with ‘My Lighthouse’, which opens their second album {Awayland}. Maybe it’s their barometer of what a show will be like: if the crowd don’t ruin this hushed number it’ll be a good show. “They could end it now and I’d be more than happy,” I said truthfully. I wasn’t ready for how powerful the track was live. Conor’s voice mesmerised me and everybody else, and, 18 tracks and 90 minutes later, everybody was still transfixed by the howls, the soft tones, the turns of phrase, everything that came out of him. “I haven’t got a clue if I’m getting through to you,” he sings on ‘My Lighthouse’. If only he knew…

Only the instrumental title track of {Awayland} goes unaired during a gig whose only hitch was Conor’s mic going near the end of ‘Memoir’. I refrained from writing anything gushing about said album when it was released in January. I was so enthused about getting to listen to new Villagers that I wouldn’t be able to give it a fair listen. It’s a good album, but I think their debut LP, Becoming A Jackal, is better. Live, though, the songs sound bigger, fuller and capable of wooing multiples of the nearly 1,000 in Cork. ‘Grateful Song’, for example, sounds like a giant compared to its recorded cousin, which has Conor almost whispering the words to you. Here he is finding every set of ears in the venue, every curious hanger-on, and bellowing at them that, well, he’s grateful for their company. ‘The Bell’ was a staple of Villagers’ live set long before {Awayland}, and it’s still so exciting. It always strikes me as guitarist Tommy McLoughlin’s favourite song, the track that lets him contort and shred his guitar with enthusiasm. ‘Earthly Pleasure’ is loud, very loud. In Cork, Tommy’s guitar and Conor’s voice are almost competing to come out on top. I was breathless. ‘The Waves’ and ‘Rhythm Composer’ also sound huge, which might make it even harder to go back to the album versions.

But the curious thing is that there’s hardly a soul singing the words back at Conor, no matter how well known the track. I expected a mass singalong for ‘Nothing Arrived’. But, er, it never arrived. I don’t know why, maybe it’s just because of Conor’s magical vocals. You don’t want to miss a thing. Villagers are hypnotic, with bassist Danny lurking in the background, stalking the middle of the stage, Tommy in thrall to his pedals. (It was a big stage so I couldn’t really see what James and Cormac were up to; sorry drum and keyboards fans.) There’s very little interaction, either with each other or with the crowd. The best we get is some Kerry-bashing, giving out about their gig the previous night (nothing too harsh, though). After the encore, Conor comes back on his lonesome and says of next song ‘That Day’: “We should have recorded it this way, but we didn’t because we’re stupid.” Harsh, but again, the crowd falls deathly ill silent in awe. The encore, ‘That Day’, ‘Newfound Land’ and ‘On A Sunlit Stage’, never reaches the tempo of the preceding ‘Ship Of Promises’. Villagers don’t need to do something pulsating to end on a high.

villagers savoy 3

So if the lawyer Conor met all those years ago were to ask of Villagers, what do they sound like? They sound like my favourite band, a band that gathers everybody close, but speaks to each person individually. We don’t sing back as one because we’re listening, we’re taking everything in, we’re feeling something. I felt my heart jump more than once during the Savoy show, felt my eyes get damp during the 10-minute encore, and I was utterly joyful at so much more. And what are they about? Well, to paraphrase Conor: Villagers infiltrate in between all the opinions, analysis, politics and all these things. It can kind of go inside all of them and cut through them a little bit. Music and words together can open up this other world that’s more than the sum of its parts.