Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast
4th November 2018

Not many look forward to going to jail but I couldn’t wait to spend a night on the tiles with Villiers and the Villains live at “The Crum”. This harmony between moniker and venue, you couldn’t make it up. One is legendary for all the wrong reasons, the other for reaping legendary status on the local music scene.

Villiers and the Villains must have one of the most loyal, devoted, and dedicated bands of followers. Their Saturday afternoon gigs at the American Bar are the friendliest in town, like a great big group hug-in-a-pub. Four loveable rogues on a wee stage with a huge sound, you can feel the love in the room. Yet tonight in “The Crum”, the ceiling is high, the walls are tall, the windows are barred, and the stage is wide enough for a full set, with space to spare. Yet even here, you can still feel the vibe in the room.

Tonight is dedicated to absent friends.

Crumlin Road Gaol or “The Crum” as it is affectionately known about these parts, is dripping in history, horror, folklore, and stone cold facts. From the Victorian era through the twentieth century, its notoriety as a brutal and cruel penal institute, its ghost stories and paranormal activities, through to its place in more recent dark episodes of living memory, give it a character of infamy that ranks among the best known penitentiaries in the world from Alcatraz to San Quentin.

“The Crum” closed its doors for the last time in 1996, then re-opened as a tourist attraction, conference centre, and live music venue, complete with restaurant and bar. You can buy a gig package including meal and a tour, or just come for the gig. I’ve been itching to get to one of these gigs in “The Crum” for a while.

It all kicks off with the enigma that is John T Davis with Colin Henry. The legendary filmmaker and musician, creator of Shell Shock Rock, Hobo, and several other critically acclaimed documentaries, is on stage sharing anecdotes and music from his career spanning decades. ‘Indigo Snow’ he dedicates to Kieran McWilliams. He naturally weaves story with song, finding the beauty in the forgotten and downtrodden, in that Western style drawl.

‘Gas Station Roses’ and ‘Last Chance To Dance’ from the album ‘Last Western Cowboy’, a cover of ‘Cowpoke’ by Stan Jones (of ‘Ghostriders In The Sky’ fame) and finally a song about an old gold Sedan, his father’s pride and joy, forlorn and forgotten.

There is poetry in the lyrics of John T Davis, and poetry is something that features strongly throughout this evening. We are introduced to Canadian poet Kathleen McCracken, an academic and writer in residence at Ulster University. With seven tomes to her credit, tonight is all about the plight of the Mustang, the four-legged variety. Performing on stage with John T Davis and Colin Henry, ‘The Ballad of Gideon Light’ – or ‘The Mustang Sequence’ – is a profound, beautifully dignified end to this opening set.

A lovely touch is the poetic references (read by George Lorimer) from famous literary figures, incarcerated. Quotes by Oscar Wilde from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ – reminders of our collective humanity and compassion in a world that grows dark. We are, after all, sitting in what was once a prison chapel.

Now, we’re ready for some jailhouse rock!

Kicking off with ‘The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, there’s a fair mix from both 2015s ‘Songs of Love and Fate’ and the 2018 album ‘Music Confounds the Machines’. The crowd soon comes alive. They know they are among friends and it shows.

‘Meat For The Dogs’ is a good fit lyrically, from “a judge in a pink wig” to “is that smoke from a gun, or smoke from a bomb?”. ‘Mexico’ is a Villains classic with its singalong chorus. It could be the free spirit’s signature song and it’s dedicated to Willie Richardson on the night.

A special word must be reserved for the legendary “Doc” Doherty, erstwhile of the Xdreamysts. Doc’s is some God-given, jaw-dropping talent, yet such a sweet and humble soul. He takes the Villains into new dimensions, altogether. That, coupled with the unique, gravel-graced voice of Tony Villiers, with Kevin Mahoney on bass and Aidan McGillan on drums, makes for a neat fit and a tight combination.

‘Jesus Was a Rolling Stone’ from the first album ‘Thin Wild Mercury’ – well, we are in an old prison chapel after all. With three albums, it must be tough to choose this evening’s playlist and fit a few covers in too but Van Morrison’s ‘Going Down to Bangor’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ are served up for a treat.

The best is yet to come, ‘Swingin’ into the Sunshine’, then three in a row from ‘Music Confounds the Machines’ and its opening track, ‘The 1979 Situation’.

Dedicated to all prisons, ‘The Government Is Coming To Town’ was made for this moment.

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Commander in Chief, for the Chief of Police. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands deep, deep, deep in your pockets for… the Collector of Taxes.

Who couldn’t raise a wry smile, given the state we’re in, and this place where we have congregated on a damp November Sunday night?

Earlier, George Lorimer had quoted Robbie Burns and dedicated the evening to absent friends. ‘One Day This Bubble Will Burst’ is dedicated to Kieran McWilliams and Majella. It’s that sort of night, mixed in with the joy and the high vibes, that tinge of sadness for those that have cut this mortal coil.

Some nights you just don’t want to end. It’ll soon be time for us to be thrown out of the slammer. The Dylan-esque quality to Villiers and the Villains comes shining through with the natural conclusion ‘I Shall Be Released’ by The Band.

I listen closely to these lyrics and find therein poetic justice. Could that be a lump in my throat? A tear in my eye? Not just yet. There’s one more essential song as a send-off. It could only be Folsom Prison Blues.

Now, it’s chucking out time to quote the other Dylan, we “do not go gentle into that good night”.

You can find Villiers and the Villains In the American Bar on the third Saturday of every month and playing the Black Box, Belfast on Friday 7th December 2018.