With the impending closure of The Kazimier, the hunt for exciting venues to help fill the void is on. Whilst the Epstein Theatre may not fit the bill in terms of the raucous, party atmosphere that the Kaz is known for, when it comes to intimate and contemplative acts like VILLAGERS it is hard to think of a better venue in the city. Riding high off the back of their critically lauded third LP Darling Arithmetic the Irish folkies arrive to an almost full house, and to get the crowd in the mood singer-songwriter SOBI takes to the stage.
Armed with an electric guitar and an elegant voice she takes us on a mellowing journey through her debut EP Betty La Guapa, a collection of songs that, although they sound a little too familiar at times, are a nice way to settle the ears before the headline act. Her vocal delivery is certainly her most powerful asset, appearing fragile yet full and carrying her simple melodies perfectly. Standing alone on the fairly large stage she seems very much at ease, and her witty interjections between songs help balance the atmosphere against what is often serious lyrical subject matter.
With the audience now suitably transfixed, Conor O’Brien and company emerge from the wings and ease their way into a beautiful and captivating set. The acoustics of the Epstein compliment their set-up thoroughly; that being drums, double bass, organ, guitar and harp. The latter is a new addition for live performances, adding an extra layer that cuts through and emphasises melodies that lie just below the surface.
Consisting mainly of tracks from the new record, the set veers between rousing, energetic numbers and delicate, acoustic ballads. One of the highlights proves to be single Courage, a catchy and well-constructed song that relies heavily on rhythmic changes without drawing too much focus from the other instrumentation.
Though it is clear that O’Brien’s songwriting has gone up a level since the first two records, the most poignant moment of the set comes through a solo rendition of old fan-favourite Becoming A Jackal. With the lights dimmed and O’Brien alone, it is a truly enthralling performance to witness. His voice echoes through the stalls, imbuing each note with significance, making what is an already remarkable song appear momentarily perfect.
As the rest of the band re-appear for the encore, there is a brief moment to ponder Villagers as an entity. It would be presumptuous and pompous to suggest that they encapsulate any great cultural significance, but in many ways they are achieving something important. With the rise of Mumford & Sons and their ilk, “indie folk”, or whatever you choose to call it, quickly seemed to lose its relevance and credibility. This was unfair considering the ingenuity and talent of certain artists who fall into this categorisation, and that is where Villagers come in: a band that specialise in fantastically subtle music, and who are also unashamed to operate within a genre lambasted by many. In a way they are helping wrestle back the term folk from the bastard-swine of Mumford and their offspring, and that is a worthy cause in my book.