Villagers with Alessi’s Ark and San Fermin – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel, Washington DC – 13th June 2013

By on Monday, 17th June 2013 at 2:00 pm

It was 3 years ago this month when I met Conor J. O’Brien, the songwriting mastermind behind Villagers. He was a short East Coast tour to promote ‘Becoming a Jackal’, his Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, so he had become reasonably well known in Britain but his talent was much less known in America, even with NPR singing his praises. (I still laugh thinking about the moment at DC9 when he asked the 40 or so audience members how they’d heard of him. Most everyone answered, “NPR!” When I answered, “Steve Lamacq!” he wanted to know if I was a spy. Haha. Hardly, unless you count Americans tuning into BBC Radio a punishable offence…

Fast forward to 2013. O’Brien and crew released last year their sophomore effort on Domino Records, ‘{Awayland}’, this past January, and everyone wanted a piece of them. (We tried to get Martin into their Newcastle show in February but were turned away.) The first clue to me that something might not be right was ‘The Waves’, an electrobeat-driven track. What happened? I loved ‘Becoming a Jackal’ and had wanted it to win the Mercury. But it seemed from this taster in summer 2012, their sound had changed forever. Thankfully, once we got the album, there was relief in the form of ‘Nothing Arrived’, which sounded like something from the ‘…Jackal’ era. It should have been obvious just from the band’s support slot with Grizzly Bear that autumn that things had changed for the Dublin folk band, and in a direction that I myself wasn’t pleased with. But when Cheryl alerted me in April before I left for Britain that Villagers – as a full band – would be playing in Washington in June, at first I thought to myself, oh god. This is going to be terrible. How am I ever going to get through this? I loved ‘Becoming a Jackal’, but ‘{Awayland]’ left me cold. And confused. What happened to Conor? He’s probably not going to play anything from the debut album because he wants to ‘distance’ himself from that material. But I’m so glad I went, and I’ll tell you why. First, let me tell you about the support acts.

Alessis Ark Washington 2013

An extremely last minute addition to the show last Thursday was Alessi Laurent-Marke, who performs under the stage name Alessi’s Ark. I say extremely last minute, as I was reading my Facebook newsfeed on Wednesday afternoon and her page’s status update said, “Washington! Alessi’s Ark was JUST added to tomorrow night’s show at the Rock and Roll Hotel with Villagers + San Fermin. We play at 7:15 — hope to see you there!” Unfortunately, I think the late notice affected the turnout for her set, even though the actual start of the show didn’t get pushed back until 8 PM, which even then is very early for Washington gig standards. The only other time she’s played in our town was with Laura Marling 2 years ago, her set framed by then forthcoming release on Bella Union of her second album, the beautiful ‘Time Travel’. That show was at Sixth and I Synagogue, a much larger venue, and I was running round the place taking photos, so I couldn’t really see her perform up close and in a relaxed way.

Admittedly, before I went on my 3-week holiday, I didn’t have time to listen to Laurent-Marke’s new LP ‘The Still Life’ released in April, but it’s more than coincidental that she got to go on tour with O’Brien, as she’s also decided to try something new sound-wise on record. It’s with some relief that songs like ‘Veins Are Blue’ on the new album are more classic Alessi’s Ark, but it’s a bit of a travesty that she had to perform solo, stood alone on the stage with her guitar – like the time before with Marling and just like O’Brien’s first visit to our city- because with a backing band, the set would have been far more compelling with its complex and beguiling arrangements, such as new album opening track ‘Tin Smithing’. Still, songs from ‘Time Travel’ like my personal favourite ‘Wire’ (whose words fall from my lips like second nature)and set closer ‘The Robot’ continue to work well even performed solo. The most haunting song award goes to ‘Woman’, from her 2009 debut ‘Notes from the Treehouse’. As Cheryl knows all too well, I tend to palm off the singer/songwriters off on her, since it’s not my favourite genre but every once in a while, someone like Laurent-Marke, entirely mesmerising to watch, captures my attention.

I’m going to cut and paste the first line of San Fermin‘s bio directly from their Web site, because it has to be read to be believed: ” A pastiche of post-rock, chamber-pop and contemporary classical composition, San Fermin is the work of Brooklyn composer and songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone.” Hmm. I think the first thing that kind of blew us away was how many people were crammed onstage for their set. Eight. Not kidding: three singers, one male, two female (one blonde, one brunette), with the brunette playing an instrument (violin); a trumpeter; a saxophonist (how often do we use that word here at TGTF? not very often); a guitarist; a drummer; and then Ludwig-Leone himself on keyboard. (No bassist. How is that possible?) If you’ve ever been to the RNR, you know getting that many people and their gear on that stage is a bit of a challenge. That bit from the biography makes me think that Ludwig-Leone is the only ‘member’ of this act who will stay constant, with the other players to be mixed and matched along the way . It’s definitely a unique take on the traditional way bands get together, I mean, mostly we cover bands that have met in university or were mates back from childhood, right?

Either way, Ludwig-Leone’s tunes, described by the blonde singer as “beautiful work”, has obviously attracted the right kind of attention, as he explained the video for single ‘Sonsick’ would be released the following week and that their (his?) eponymous album would be released in September on Downtown Records, an indie with ties to Universal and who have released albums by White Denim and Lissy Trullie. Several in our friends’ group there to watch Villagers agreed that the male singer sounded like Matt Berninger of the National, so I will go with that (I couldn’t tell you for sure, as I’m not a National fan, nor do I enjoy the male baritone singing style). The most confusing part of San Fermin’s set wasn’t the cacophony on stage: to be honest, the eight-strong band sounded tight, which is much to their credit. No, it was the style of songs being played, which made the set schizophrenic. You have songs where the blonde woman is singing like an opera singer and the arrangement is grand, but then you have songs like ‘Sonsick’ where you’re thinking as a reviewer, err, there’s so much going on here, how the heck am I going to explain this? Either way, you should probably keep the act name San Fermin in mind, as I expect they (he?) will be going places.

Villagers Washington live 2013

So, yes. Villagers. It is always a wonderful thing to be surrounded by delightful foreign to DC accents and the Irish one is no exception. O’Brien began their set with him performing ‘Memoir’, a track on the ‘Nothing Arrived’ single from last year. It was beautifully gentle, with his O’Brien’s gorgeous voice in this sad love song, playing his smaller-scale guitar. From there, it was straight into funky and slightly atonal ‘Passing a Message’, which was a better indication on how this set was going to go. Whoa whoa whoa. While the only time prior to this I’d seen him perform was solo, the transformation from the man who sang ‘Memoir’ to the one wailing on psychedelic ‘The Bell’ wasn’t what I expected at all. I kind of felt like I’d been slapped in the face by Cher like Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck.

And that was when it all clicked. It all made sense now. Loads of artists have said when working on their second albums, “I want to do something different”, “the new album will sound different”, they don’t want to stay in one place. But most of the time, I find the impetus to do something different isn’t authentic, it’s because they’re feeling the peer pressure to do so. I think everyone expected with the critical success of ‘…Jackal’ that the second Villagers album would just be a ‘…Jackal’ part 2. I can tell you for sure that in watching Villagers gig, O’Brien has truly written songs on ‘{Awayland}’ that he believes in and are a direct reflection of who he is a person and a songwriter. There’s nothing false here. Seeing him rip on a song like ‘Judgment Call’ and the aforementioned ‘The Bell’, but then throw himself emotionally and dazzlingly into ‘Becoming a Jackal’ and ‘Ship of Promises’ without missing a beat? It was all a wonderful thing to see.

O’Brien and band playing my favourite track of theirs, ever, the love song all about complete devotion, ‘The Pact’, had me absolutely verklempt. (How very appropriate that when I heard this song for the first time in 2010, even though I was entirely into dance music, I loved it. And now it fits perfectly in the guitar pop genre that I am in love with right now.) Conor J. O’Brien, the man and his songwriting, is all grown up. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s brilliant. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next.

After the cut: the set list.

Villagers Set List:
Passing a Message
Set the Tigers Free
Nothing Arrived
Grateful Song
The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever)
The Bell
The Meaning of the Ritual
The Waves
Judgment Call
Ship of Promises
Earthly Pleasures
My Lighthouse
27 Strangers
Becoming a Jackal

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6 Responses

2:01 pm
17th June 2013

New post: Villagers with Alessi’s Ark and San Fermin – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel, Washington DC – 13th June 2013:

2:12 pm
17th June 2013

RT @tgtf: New post: Villagers with Alessi’s Ark and San Fermin – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel, Washington DC – 13th June 2013:

2:15 pm
17th June 2013

Villagers @wearevillagers play in DC with full band and @allaboardtheark @sanferminband @rocknrollhotel 13 June 2013:

2:24 pm
17th June 2013

RT @tgtf: Villagers @wearevillagers play in DC with full band and @allaboardtheark @sanferminband @rocknrollhotel 13 June 2013:…

[…] For a taste of their live show, read my review of when they stopped in DC last month here. […]

[…] at Rock ‘n’ Roll Hotel (13th June 2013) – this was the first time I’d see the Villagers full band setup, having only seen Conor […]

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