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Villiers & The Villains - American Bar, Belfast

Review: Villiers & The Villains – The American Bar, Belfast

Top class live music, Saturday afternoon pints the week before Christmas, and all this served up in one of Belfast’s most welcoming little bars; this reviewing lark is a tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it.  Battling the worst day of wind and rain so far this season we made it into The American Bar in Sailortown at about 2.30.  Inside there were pints of stout, bowls of stew and convivial chatter all round.   The only downside was that certain someone had informed me that this was to be a Christmas jumper gig, and yet mine turned out to be the only one there. Luckily, I’m not easily embarrassed.

At just before 3pm the doors opened for us to move to the upper room.  For an afternoon gig it was gratifying to note that it was so well attended, and before long there wasn’t a vacant seat to be had.  Tony Villiers and the Villains are regulars in this Saturday slot, playing once a month, and it’s clear they have a keen following. 

There was no messing about and at just about 3 on the dot, they launched into The Devil and the Deep Blue SeaThe Villains’ sound is timeless, and in this authentic old hostelry you’d be forgiven for believing you’d been transported back to nineteen-seventy-something.  Onstage the band have a very distinctive look. Handsome Tony with his bandana wrapped fedora always looks dapper, the legendary Doc Doherty is a proper rock n roll type after the fashion of Keith Richards, Aidan McGillian is chilled out on drums, and Kevin Mahoney is the towering, enigmatic, strong silent type on bass.

Earlier this year The Villains released their brilliant new album Music Confounds the Machines, and Mexico from that record, followed by the sultry little bluesy number Last Night, were well received by the punters.  Around the room an occasional fedora could be seen, an occasional bottle of wine in a cooler – this was a discerning audience. The next tune apparently wasn’t quite finished enough to make it onto the latest album and is being held in reserve for the next one – but if you ask me, Hitting the Road Again has the makings of one of their best! With instrumentals reminiscent of Van the Man, it’s a cool tune.

As the afternoon progressed the people kept coming in – and this is not a bar in a busy thoroughfare where people might just wander in from the cold.  This afternoon slot seems to be working better than some night time gigs I’ve attended lately and it’s testament to the venue and the acts that are building up such a loyal clientele. Kingdoms of Sin from the new record had atmospheric backing vocals from Mahoney and McGillian in the form of a warning; “put your shoulder to the door, don’t let them in.”

Then it was back to the debut album for one of their best loved songs, Jesus was a Rollin’ Stone.  A Bob Dylan influence permeates much of The Villains’ music, in their style and often in lyrical hat tips, but perhaps none more so than here when Jesus, “rolled into a truck-stop bar, bought a bottle and stole a car, drove out onto 61.”  The Dylan-esque mood continued with the harmonica led The Last Waltz.  I’m a Dylan fan myself but must admit Tony’s mellifluous tones are more soothing on a dreary Saturday than Dylan’s jarring vocals can sometimes be. With the blinds pulled against the storm it felt like such an indulgence to be here in the middle of the day enjoying this musical delight. 

Funking it up then was the chanting, anthemic Meat for the Dog, and it was impossible to resist joining in. In a gig full of light and shade then it was a return to the mellow with the beautiful Without your Love, in the middle of which Doc’s grand guitar solo earned rapturous applause.  Then before one of their famously “short” intervals we were treated to Van Morrison’s Going Down to Bangor.  The vigour with which they perform this song, coupled with the fact that it is littered with Belfast and Bangorian references, (“Pickie Pool” and “Cavehill” and “Napoleon’s Nose” amongst others), makes this song a joyous thing, and going into the break the people were uproarious.

I have rarely experienced such a genial atmosphere as there was during this break; people from all over the country and one or two from America, chatted and compared notes on everything from the favourite Villains tracks to their memories of Doc’s ex-band, XDreamysts. The band mingled too, and Doc shared with us the story of how a month earlier he’d played here and was surprised to realise he’d had some birthday cards taken, a shock considering he thought he’d known most of the people there. Today they were handed back to him intact – someone had taken them home by mistake.  That’s the kind of crowd this is!

Back on stage at 4.30 with a Dylan cover, Like a Rolling Stone, the band played a banging second half.  A highlight for me was Rambling Man which comes from the second of their three albums and the one which I don’t yet own; but the song sounds like a standard, I felt like I knew it and was surprised to learn it’s one of their own. A real gem of a song.

An arguably less well-known Dylan cover was Things Have Changed.  Tony Villiers chooses the few covers that he does prudently, and this is a quality track with emotive and sometimes risqué lyrics. McGillian on drums, quite unassuming one would think at the beginning of the gig, gets more and more animated with these rockier songs and is fun to watch.

An insistent “Shhhh” rang around the room from the fans who didn’t want to miss a note of the next song, a pretty little thing from the new album called When My Heart was Broke. Another classic sound, I could imagine Dylan covering this one.

Perhaps my favourite song from Music Confound the Machines is The 1979 Situation – an elusive number since it isn’t exactly clear what that situation is. My guess is that it has something to do with the rise of Thatcher – but who knows? Tony remains tight-lipped.

I felt incredibly lucky to be there for the birth of a new track which was a sort of hymn to the faithful there gathered; “The Villains and Villainettes, dancing in the sunshine, outside the American Bar, a tiny revolution.”  The devoted finally have their own anthem – and how exciting to be part of it!

Unsurprisingly, Red Wine and Reefer had one of the most enthusiastic responses of the night. I wouldn’t like to cast any aspersions, but many of the people in attendance, both onstage and off, look like they might have had their fair share of both. Reminiscent of Dylan’s Outlaw Blues in the lyric, “I’ve got my guitar humming, I’ve got for good luck my black suit,” this is a rabblerousing song and brought everyone to their feet.

And with that, most of the crowd remained on their feet for the final few songs, of which The Government is Coming to Town was one of the most memorable.   I have heard this song live a few times now and it still kind of surprises me each time – I’ve never heard anything quite like it.  The combination of the Spanish flamenco guitars, the jaunty chorus and Tony’s hollered mantra berating the oppressive grip of the government, it’s a satirical treasure.

I have been meaning to make my way to one of these daytime gigs in The American for some time now, and I am delighted that I finally managed it.  This is a superb little venue, a hive of quality music, fighting the good fight to keep live music alive.  And with two pints of stout for £7.40, it’s about the best value I have seen in Belfast too. At somewhere approaching six o’clock the Villains finally finished their set with the ambitious eight-minute-long The Bubble Will Burst while a chorus line of women encircled the back of the room and sang along in raptures. 

Tony Villiers and the Villains are in my opinion a seriously underrated jewel of the Northern Irish music scene. The Dylan comparison is unavoidable but to overstate it would be to underestimate the originality of what these talented musicians are doing. Tony’s voice seems to get better every time I see them, and there is no-one else out here doing quite what they do.

My tastes vary - live in concert I've seen (amongst others) Bob Dylan, The Cure, Morrissey, Johnny Marr (sadly never The Smiths), Van Morrison, David Byrne, Counting Crows, John Prine, Chris Smither, Erasure, They Might be Giants, The Verve, Ben Folds, Georgie Fame, Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright and Loudon Wainwright III. This decade, a lot more home grown talent, with the likes of Duke Special, Brian Kennedy, VerseChorusVerse, The Bonnevilles, Tony Villiers and the Villains, The Hardchargers, and The 4 of Us. Favourite gigs include Prince in Cork in 1990, Trip to Tipp ’91 & ’92, David Bowie’s Reality tour in 2003.