The Mac, Belfast (CQAF Out To Lunch Festival), by Aaron Drain
While something of a treat to be able to catch Conor O’Brien and co. in such lavish surroundings as the MAC’s lofty ground-floor theatre, one ponders that there surely MUST be caveats that the artist performing has to come to terms with when entering the cavernous, booming hall in its current layout. For one, our almost birds-eye view of the room in its entirety allows for a true measure of the scale of the place, and as it fills, you’d wonder if a three inch gap between the front row seating and the stage is going to be a problem for O’Brien, whether he might feel a little overly scrutinised; introspective and shy as he appears to be. Secondly, and perhaps this is a tad glib, but if an artist performing that close to his adoring fans is mid-crescendo and pouring his soul to the people, will he be a bit fucked-off if a gent from that first row gets up, scurries along as onlookers internally guffaw (but visibly cringe), and goes for a pint? Then returns as a new song is blossoming into the sonic space around us? With said pint in hand?
Apparently not, and fair play – O’Brien the professional is as, well, professional as ever in the face of sheer front-and-centre lunacy. Striking a balance between serene, sanguine and utterly captivating, Villagers as a live machine are one well-oiled. Given too that this tour is a reflection of latest LP Where Have You Been All My Life? along with some its frank replications from last year’s Darling Arithmetic, whatever criticisms that may have been levelled at O’Brien for this venture are soon lost in soaring soliloquies and crashing melodies – ‘Hot Scary Summer’ moving us, ‘Memoir’ pushing us to the brink of emotional capacity, and ‘No One to Blame’ a force of masterful songwriting meeting tight, sharp musicianship.
A thrilling performance that, actually, really works really well in this space – despite some niggles here and there. There isn’t much in the way of amicable trade-offs between O’Brien and his audience, but moments of silence are occasionally penetrated with his dry wit and endearing grin – occasions that mask the internal struggles of a man playing very personal and starkly emotional material. Of course, the beauty of this seated performance is that for the most part the audience realise exactly this and respond as they should – onlookers to the majesty of a life’s play unfolding on the stage before their eyes.
Throwing in ‘I Saw The Dead’, unsurprisingly, sends us unmercifully crazy and you’d feel bad for the few empty seats here tonight if their owners weren’t such fools for giving up this gift of an evening.
When O’Brien talks of his band as they stand around him, it’s as if they’ve been friends since way back when and the level of trust that is conveyed through the minimal, but weighty, sentiments exchanged speaks volumes for an outfit that, despite some interesting renditions tonight (‘Wichita Lineman’..ahem), are effectively at the top their proverbial game. What a show.
Vicar St, Dublin, by Stephen D’Arcy
Every time Villagers play, it feels like a homecoming show. Whether it’s to an intimate theatre gig or to a packed out Vicar St, the sense of anticipation and admiration is always present. Even for this tour, a re-working of past songs with a focus on delicate instrumentation (as demonstrated on Villagers latest release Where Have You Been All My Life?), the audience is captivated from the first note.
Before Villagers claim the stage, the ethereal Somerville veils the room in her signature sound of atmospheric minimalism. The Galway native has made a name for herself over the last few years through appearances at niche gigs while also remaining careful not to release too much information or music. While Somerville’s set is short and possibly too intricate to fully transcend Vicar St’s large room, she holds a decent sized crowd and deserves the applause that arrives after each song.
The double-bass line of ‘Memoir’ opens Villagers set and as the night moves forward, those in attendance are treated to the full spectrum of this almost new band set-up. From Conor O’Brien’s standard acoustic guitar to the sister/brother combination of delicate harp playing and percussion/flugelhorn from Mali & Gwion Llywelyn respectively, they create a luxurious backdrop for these re-worked songs.
There are many highlights from a set that includes nods to Villagers entire back catalogue. A half-time ‘The Pact’ melts every heart in the room – an emotional O’Brien recounts the last time ‘Hot Scary Summer’ was played the day before the marriage referendum and a duet from O’Brien and harpist Llywelyn of ‘No One To Blame’ garners a huge round of applause.
Perhaps jutting out from the rest of the set, ‘Little Bigot’ with its new up-beat, almost jig style beat, changes the tone of the evening momentarily but apart from this, it’s hard to find fault here. There are a few technical issues and some playful back and forth between the audience and O’Brien but it all just adds to the intimacy that comes hand in hand with a Villagers show.
O’Brien is a class of songwriter we have not seen on these shores for a long time. His songs are attention grabbing, full of meaning with an acute attention to detail, while his live performances reflect the recordings with energy and a hunger that is usually more apparent in upcoming acts.
For his latest release O’Brien chose to re-imagine his songs and to some, the re-working didn’t account for enough change for an album release. Perhaps there is an argument there, but the strength of this performance alone solidifies the strength of O’Brien’s songwriting abilities and the musical talents of Villagers as a whole.
Villagers photographed for State by Leah Carroll