Review: Tony Villiers and the Villains, Crumlin Road Gaol
Given their name, it makes sense I suppose, that Tony Villiers and the Villains would be found hanging out in a prison. If the American Bar in Sailortown is largely regarded as the band’s spiritual home, then Crumlin Road Gaol is clearly their second home, because they are just as comfortable on the stage here.
Two support acts entertained us for the first hour. Young singer songwriter Paddy Godfrey has more than a hint of the Johnny Cash about him. Four original songs and two covers made up the set, and when he played Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, he assured us he was not taking the piss. A cracking version.
Next up was veteran performer and filmmaker, John T. Davis. At 72 years old, Belfast born Davis was kitted out in Stetson and boots and looked every inch the cowboy troubadour. His music is an acquired taste; very niche, a little cheesy, it’s just not really my bag. His apparent passion for the music and movies of the American West was a bit too Tom Russell for my liking, but the crowd enjoyed him, and he got a very nice reaction. The stories interwoven with the music were more entertaining than the songs for me, but he’s been around for a long time so he’s obviously doing something right.
The mood in the room changed dramatically when Tony Villiers and his Villains came onstage just after 8pm. From the get-go there were revellers dancing at the back of the room to lively opening tracks, “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and “Red Wine and Reefer.” There was no warm-up required, it was 0-90 in seconds flat. Tony really was on top form tonight; I’ve never seen him more animated or looking like he was enjoying himself more. This is a big room but the sound system is a belter and they filled it with sound very easily. New song “Hitting the Road Again” and older track “The Last Waltz” were equally welcome additions to the set.
Following the release of The Villains’ third album, Music Confounds the Machines last year, the newer tracks are fast becoming standards and I am particularly loving the live performances of “Kingdoms of Sin,” with the backing vocal talents of drummer Aidan McGillian and bassist Kevin Mahoney adding to its impact.
McGillian’s comic chops were also evident in his expression of mock terror at Tony’s announcement that they were going to take a chance and do a song they’d never played before. It’s a testament to the musicianship of the band that if he’d not confessed that this was their first crack at Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” we’d never have been able to tell. Doc Doherty’s sensational guitar solo elicited spontaneous applause from the crowd. Doc’s achieved almost legendary status around these here parts, and it’s not hard to see why. Smiles between Tony and Doc revealed that they were enjoying every bit as much as we were.
No Villiers gig would be complete if he didn’t play “Jesus Was a Rolling Stone.” I love this song, and tonight’s particularly lively version was dedicated by Doc to Brenda. I had worried that the famed gigs in the American Bar would be tough to beat in terms of atmosphere, and I was sceptical of those who’d assured me that “The Crum” was every bit as good and the reception of these favourite songs was just as enthusiastic. But they were right.
Red lights illuminated the stage for “Mexico” from the new album, and the shimmering mood continued; Tony is positively bouncing, Doc is grinning, we’re all grinning. It’s a real treat to witness a band in peak form, and Tony’s harmonica solo of epic proportions provokes a loud “Woo!” from McGillian. Not letting the energy dip for a minute it was straight into the rousing, “Meat for the Dog”. This felt pretty special. More dynamic than I’ve ever seen them, the Villains turned it up to eleven tonight. The anthem of Doc’s adopted home town, Van Morrison’s “Going Down to Bangor” brought them to a much-needed break.
Dancing abounds at the opening of the second half, with Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Swingin’ Into the Sunshine” from Villiers’ second album, Songs of Love and Fate. A brief pause in the proceedings allowed the band and the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” and blast a few party poppers in honour of one fan. The Villains and Villainettes as the devoted are known, really are like a big family.
Every member of the band is a joy to watch tonight. The couple sitting next to us remarked that Aidan McGillian was especially hyper tonight and he really did seem to be in his element. Kevin Mahoney on bass is a different matter entirely; straight-faced, still, statuesque, effortlessly cool. It’s not a popular opinion, but I always find myself watching the bass player in any band, I think it’s the coolest instrument on the stage.
After their ode to John Prine, the night was almost drawing to a close and Tony told us, “We’re gonna do one more and then we gotta split man.” And what a tune to end on – “The Government is Coming to Town” is a spectacular in two parts, alternating intense and stirring with jaunty and light. There’s no mistaking their satirical credentials, bemoaning the long arms of the tax man and declaring, “and if you feel like me, well you ain’t ever gonna be free!” The appreciative audience weren’t going to let them away with that though. “Will we do another one? Will we do another ten?” *Loud cheers* The clamouring crowd were appeased with “Big Old Dancing Bear Blues.”
Dancers everywhere couldn’t help themselves. Then bizarrely as Tony introduced and thanked the members of the band, swathes of bubbles began spewing forth from the stage, and one particular Villainette wove through the crowd dispensing Bazooka Joe style bubble gum. It could only mean one thing. The last few punters left in their seats began to join the growing line at the back of the room, arms encircling waists, anticipating the finale; “The Bubble Will Burst”. It’s a mesmeric, eight-minute-long anthem and pretty compelling; the bubble machine going ding-dust on the stage, the devotees around the room blowing candy pink bubbles, this is fast becoming a ritual at Villains gigs. Is this how religions start? Is it a cult? If it is, where do I sign up?
Photos courtesy of https://www.instagram.com/localgigsphotography/