Live Review: Villagers at Glee Club, Birmingham UK, June 1, 2010

VILLAGERS KICK OFF A BRIEF SIX- DATE  U.S. TOUR JUNE 16 AT BROOKLYN’S KNITTING FACTORY

“What are you doing in Birmingham then?”

This inquiry — proffered with a certain amount of menace by a hard-accented, daunting piece of beef who likely makes a living as a heavy in Guy Ritchie flicks — is a fair question.

What exactly was I doing installed in a casino, just shy of five AM, in Birmingham, England?

Video of Conor J O’Brien sans band on Later with Jools Holland

Blinking my bloodshot eyes against the unkind light, I focus them across the room, where my faithful, if alcoholic-and-gambling-addicted meerkat, Thomás, was valiantly failing away whatever little money we had left to a tableful of Texas Hold’em clichés.  It was all a little 2006 for me, but as a friendly prostitute told me earlier that evening, the only things Birmingham was good for were “rain, shopping and my pussy – none of which you can afford.”  Given that state of affairs, casino living seemed an acceptable second prize.

I briefly consider telling my ham-fisted friend the actuality of my circumstances, which involve a whirlwind intercontinental trip in search of European financing with which to complete my passion project, Hardcastle and McCormick: The Movie*, which had suddenly and quite painfully taken residence in turnaround limbo back home.  But in mentally recounting that misadventure, which cumulated with me snorting obscene amounts of vitamin B for an “agent” in an attempt to prove I could fake a line in order to get a part in an independent, low-budget film about a pizza boy and a lonely cougar housewife – which was a maximized effort to earn some money for the return trip to the United States of Goldman Sachs — I was suddenly blessed with the clarity to see that there was nothing to be gained here by telling the truth.  Except maybe a beating.

“Got an aunt that lives here,” I mutter to the likely pugilist, noting the way the stitching of his shirt was straining against the bulk of flesh underneath.

He studies me the way a lion must while considering whether or not to disembowel a gazelle, then grunts in affirmation, improbably turning his attention back to the television above the gaming tables.

I feel like this is the second piece of luck I’ve had since landing on British soil.  Just a few hours before, while scanning Birmingham’s weekly rag, I discovered that the cast of the hit Fox network TV series Glee was in town for a promotional performance at a place called Club Villagers, no doubt to muster foreign support for a franchise expansion a la The Office in reverse.  So my current plan called for waiting out the rain by lightly gambling in the casino for the next 12 hours or so until it was time to go over to the venue and fake my way into the event by brandishing my dubious online press credentials.  Certainly, being the only American journalist covering the overseas event would allow me to get some interview access with the cast of the show – especially with that dreamy Chris Colfer — which I planned to then parlay into a lead story on the holiest of holy hard news sites – E! Online – and earn some sorely needed cash for our plane ride home.

But watching as Thomás slides a majority slice of our diminishing pile of chips across the table after another losing hand, I’m starting to think a wet cardboard box on the street would have been cheaper for us than Plan A.

In point of fact, the next 12 hours pass uneventfully, with Thomás eventually battling his way back from the depths of debt to emerge the equivalent of $15 richer than when he started the night.  By my calculations, between his winnings and the amount of comp drinks we’ve consumed, we emerge from the casino, right on schedule, in the neighborhood of $783 ahead.

Imagine my disdain then, to arrive at the show and learn that the cast of Glee was not in fact on tour and performing on a Tuesday night in Birmingham, England – but rather that the venue was called Glee Club and some Irish act named Villagers was playing instead.

It seemed a serious misinterpretation of the ad I had read some 19 hours earlier – perhaps due to all the vitamin B I had snorted – had led us astray.  Far, far astray.

So long E! Online.  Hello, Music Zeitgeist.

Glee Club was, at least on this night, set up for optimal performance reverence with a seated configuration, rather than the usual mess of bodies in a pile of general admission regret which births most Music Zeitgeist reviews.  The chairs could possibly have been an effort to camouflage weak ticket sales, but as one of them was available on the aisle fairly close to the stage, who was I to complain?  If all else failed, once the lights went down, the venue’s seated arrangement would allow for two – hell, maybe even three – hours of sheltered sleep in near darkness.

No such luck.

No, our luck was much, much better.

From the time Villagers took the stage, a beautiful chaos reigned at Glee Club, to the degree that sleep was not possible – nor wanted.

For in Birmingham, just one week after the release of their debut full-length album, Becoming A Jackal, Villagers set about decimating their Glee Club audience with a barely controlled miasmatic deluge of dense, dark, 60’s-folk-influenced pop deliverance.

Fans of Jeff and Tim Buckley, The National, Damien Rice, Ours, Van Morrison, Tindersticks, Leonard Cohen, early Shannon Wright, Simon And Garfunkel, Radiohead and even Jens Lekman would do well to take note of Villagers as they begin their limited, six-date U.S. Tour June 16 at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn.

Though Villagers is effectively a nom de plume for frontman Conor J O’Brien’s solo indulgences, it would only be through the success of ignorance to refer to Villagers in a live setting as anything less than a full band effort.  O’Brien himself is impressive enough, but it’s the live addition of drums, keys, bass, lead guitar and backing vocals which render Villagers a force to be reckoned with (even though my high school English teacher told me not to end sentences with prepositions).

Kicking things off with “The Meaning Of The Ritual,” O’Brien quietly strummed his tiny guitar and offered confessionally:  “My love is selfish / and I bet that yours is too,” conjuring a beaten veteran fresh off the frontlines of Love, on leave to sagely offer advice to all us FNGs.  But unlike the album version of “Ritual,” which builds slowly only to check out after three minutes — just when you think something might happen — the song on this night went from hymnal to apocalyptic, swelling into a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector want to kill (again).  It certainly wasn’t the last time the set would see such a turn of events; a number of Becoming A Jackal’s songs were similarly ignited over the course of the evening with a pyromaniac’s delight.

In fact, the next three songs (“Home,” “Becoming A Jackal” and “That Day”) were equally played as if they were set-enders, undoubtedly leaving a number of audience members wondering how the show would end if this was how it was starting.

All of which was nothing compared to what Villagers had in store for us next.

“Pieces,” which is bound to become mix-tape fodder for the Twilight set, followed, and for a moment, it seemed as if the crowd might get a sonic reprieve.  “Pieces” started off meekly enough, with a spread of 60’s string-and-piano schmaltz a la “Theme From A Summer Place,” while O’Brien weakly croaked out his vocal accompaniment: “For a long, long time / I’ve been in pieces.” Just a few moments later, the whole she-bang jumped the rails and erupted like Eyjafjallajökull all over again.  It appeared that Villagers’ intent was to bring the building down upon themselves and the crowd alike with their offering, and in fact, around the time the song’s coda rolled around, I was nervously eyeing the emergency exit signs in case a quick escape was necessary.  At that point, the only thing clarion in the seismic mess that emanated from the stage was O’Brien’s werewolf howling, still hair-raisingly audible over the shuddering of Glee Club’s foundation.

Villagers' stage set at Glee Club June 1, 2010

It Takes A Village...to create the carnage Villagers delivered at Glee Club June 1st (crime scene photo by author).

At that point, given that everyone in the room had broken a sweat, Villagers took things down several notches with the tender album-closer “To Be Counted Among Men” and the fun, folky frolic of “The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever).”  Showing they had yet another gear in their arsenal (or perhaps it was a bottle of NOS in their trunk), O’Brien took up residence behind the piano so Villagers could whip out Becoming A Jackal’s opener — the hypnotic-if-ghastly Grimm’s fairy tale-esque “I Saw The Dead.”

Wrapping up the main set, they took on “Down, Under The Sea,” off 2009’s The Hollow Kind EP, before ending things with a churning “Ship Of Promises.”

Unfortunately, the usual “hey maybe we’ll come back and play a few more songs” jerk-off followed, but on this occasion at least, the audience was demanding it, even if it was in their own “we’re seated but we will clap ardently if reservedly in appreciation for the fact that our minds have just been riven asunder by your musical stylings.”

“Set The Tigers Free” led off after the break, providing somewhat of a breather with its mellow Marty Balin’s “Hearts” by-way-of-Tindersticks vibe.  Finally on its last legs, the set closed as Villagers played their 2009 debut single, “On A Sunlit Stage,” which is inexplicably unavailable on either their EP or full-length release.  Of course, it wouldn’t have been Villagers if they played it straight; true to form that night, the song crescendo’d into a sonic tidal wave, which abruptly stopped, leaving a vast silence in the room before more ardent-if-reserved clapping began anew.

Though Becoming a Jackal is not yet a month old, it’s hard not to wonder what Villagers will do next, since their live set was significantly extra-dimensional compared to the album versions of the songs they performed.  That’s not to take anything away from O’Brien, who wrote all the material on the record, played almost all the instruments and produced it to boot.  But the fact is that having experienced Villagers live makes it tough to listen to BAJ knowing those ass-kicking incendiary devices and chorale singing elements present in the live set aren’t forthcoming.

For his part, O’Brien makes quite the compelling performer, his looks belying the furor he ably and suddenly wielded regularly throughout the set.  He resembles the twee progeny of Elijah Wood and that other Conor – Oberst – rendered even more harmless-looking by his diminutive guitar, all of which provides him with the theatrical leverage to come off as an unexpected wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Possessing a flair for the dramatic, he’d oftentimes scan the audience down his nose and out of the corner of his eye, offering something of an invitation or condemnation, depending on which of his words were fleeing his mouth as his eyes happened upon his victims.  When things would really heat up, O’Brien would often stray from the mic and repeatedly murmur lyrics to himself with his eyes closed, as if under a spell.

Still, it appears he’s far from taking himself seriously, and further still from fitting any tortured artist stereotypes that are bound to ensue, given the nature of his music (with his dark and literary lyrics, O’Brien has much more in common with James Joyce than his weepy singer-songwriter contemporaries).  In fact, he would affably, even goofily, address the crowd between songs, noting on more than one occasion, for example, how the audience was “freaking [Villagers] out” for being polite and tame compared to the normal raucousness of their affairs.

But nice guy or not, one thing is for certain.  O’Brien and his Villagers ravaged the audience at Glee Club on June 1st, and picked their bones clean.

Just like a pack of jackals.

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