23 September 2010
88Nine Radio Milwaukee Studio
[On occasion, our far-flung correspondents attend and review shows. Here's another installment.]
The wee Irishman from Dublin Town ambled through the doors of the make-shift - but earnest - studio at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee yesterday afternoon, softly apologizing to a select crowd for being late on arrival. He explained that the tardiness was unavoidable: coming off a plane bound from Minneapolis, the airline had misplaced his work instrument. Namely, his guitar.
On his short solo tour of the US and Canada, Conor J O'Brien aka Villagers probably would have enthralled the audience with a short set of tunes if he was forced to sing a cappella. But O'Brien was happy to report that his Japanese crafted acoustic instrument (affectionately nicknamed "Lola") was indeed accompanying him.
The Villagers front-man propped himself up on a stool that dated back to high school shop days and waited for the cue from the radio host to begin. Modestly clad in jeans, work shirt and high top Chuck Taylors, O'Brien silently fiddled with a couple of guitar chords. Then he launched into "That Day," the third single from the marvelous album Becoming A Jackal, nominated earlier this year for the Mercury Prize (which recognizes the top ten long-playing records from the past year in the UK and Ireland). His soft interpretation of the tune, in contrast to the CD's production, bravely brought to the forefront the literate story of unavoidable chasm that has developed between a couple.
The catchy pop of "The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)" lightened the mood of the small room. Accompanied by a bossa nova like beat from his guitar, O'Brien deftly showed his vocal range on the last verse and chorus.
A new song followed, identified at least for now as "In A New Found Land You Are Free." The gentle, swaying melody betrays the angst and conflict of the lyric, which this reveiwer looks forward to hearing again. The final stanza stuck with me, though:
This new found land
Comes a new found grief
But in a new found land she is free
You are free
It immediately brought to mind the vast migration of Irish to the US and Canada (in particular to the latter nation, whether by coincidence or not, to Newfoundland) and the simple, human tales of struggle and sacrifice woven in Colm Toibin's great novel Brooklyn.
The solo Villager wrapped the mini-set up with "Ship of Promises," a tale that challenges the listener in the best Dylanesque tradition: clever social commentary? the yin and yang of an individual's daily struggle to fit in this world? the unsure journey of a romantic relationship? all of the above? Whatever the interpretation, the song once again confirms that this artist is a wordsmith with the goods to endure in the music business.
[Thanks to the great folks at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee for the kind invite and hospitality.]
"The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)"
"In A New Found Land You Are Free"
"Ship of Promises"