2011 is set to be a year to remember for Conor O'Brien. Jill Black catches him before the arena tours begin

For Irish act Villagers 2010 was an exceptional year. Amidst plaudits from critics, the band toured extensively and wowed the festival circuit, whilst finding time to squeeze in television appearances in both the UK and US. Their debut album release Becoming a Jackal was also nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize in May.

The driving force behind the ever-growing buzz is Dun Laoghaire man Conor O’Brien, who formed the band in 2008 following the break-up of his previous endeavour The Immediate. O’Brien often performs solo under the Villagers guise but tonight the Limelight audience is treated to the full band, Tommy McLaughlin on guitar, James Byrne on drums, Danny Snow on bass and Cormac Curran on keys. And what a treat it is.

Supported by Northern Irish favourites Cashier No.9, who do a superlative job of ensuring the audience is suitably energised for the main act, O’Brien takes to the stage alone before being joined by the rest of the band. Impossibly baby-faced and with an unassuming stage-presence which – at least initially – belies the sheer intensity of his vocals, O’Brien wraps the audience in a melodic velvety cloak from the get-go and doesn’t release them until long after the gig is finished.

Villagers rehearse for only a few days before each tour, presumably to keep things fresh, and O’Brien keeps an almost dictatorial hold on the music itself (on top of the writing, he played the majority of instruments and designed all the artwork on Becoming a Jackal). Nevertheless the band members perfectly complement each other’s on-stage musical meanderings, demonstrating the expert sixth sense of performers completely in sync after some months of touring. They are undoubtedly all able musicians, but there is no mistaking the bona fide star of the show.

O’Brien effortlessly switches from quiet restraint on the heart-wrenching ‘To Be Counted Among Men’ to unfettered howling on the last performance of the evening, ‘Pieces’. The latter has the potential to veer into unintentionally comical territory in less capable hands, but O’Brien’s masterful approach serves only to send considerable chills up one’s spine.

Villagers’ music is simultaneously light and dark, simple yet incredibly rich, and above all, moving. Lyrically, O’Brien walks a poetically bleak line and there’s something of the tortured artist about him, which is, of course, all part of the wider appeal.

The only Irish signing to independent UK-based Domino Records, Villagers now find themselves part of a family that includes Four Tet, Clinic, Bonnie Prince Billy, These New Puritans, Stephen Malkmus and King Creosote: a veritable motley crew of talent. It is one in which O’Brien should feel at home. He has been likened to Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, among others, and Becoming a Jackal occasionally tips its hat to the operatic stylings of Rufus Wainwright - on stage there are also tinges of Bon Iver, Jeff Buckley, and The Shins.

Amidst the woeful miasma of music-by-numbers X-Factor-type wannabes presently dominating mainstream television and music, it is more than refreshing to spend a couple of hours in the company of a songwriter who clearly means every word, feels every note and sings from the very depths of his soul. This has the sublime aura of a ‘special’ gig, an evening to be pleasurably savoured before Villagers make it really big and start playing less intimate venues. Definitely one to watch in 2011.

Photo credit of Conor J. O'Brien: Alessio Michelini Photography.