We’re uncertain if it’s to do with the relatively smaller size of the venue set aside for headliners, the subdued nature of the music on offer, or the cartwheel’s distance between the entrance to the tent and the bar, but if there is a significant problem during Villagers’ set at the Galway Arts Festival, it’s the incessant crowd chatter that barrells its way into every cranny of oxygen while the band perform.
If he’s also annoyed, Villagers mainman Conor O’Brien hides it admirably. He’s rarely seen without a smile on his face for the majority of the set, and when he does address the obtrusive palaver at the back of the crowd, it’s with good humour. “Let’s see how quiet we can get for this song,” he suggests at one point, to a chorus of chuckles and the eventual searing white heat of glares towards the one joker who thinks it’ll be funny to shout “woo!”
Up until that point, between-song talk is rare, but past the halfway stage the band limber up, O’Brien confidently traverses the stage, waving his head pleasantly as he begins a new song. The Villagers project got off to a good start six years back with Becoming A Jackal (the title track of which finishes off proceedings on an upliftingly bittersweet note, as is the way with O’Brien’s work), but the band really comes into its own when it ventures into the material from last year’s stellar Darling Arithmetic.
Much digital ink has been spilled over the album’s focus on O’Brien’s opening-up of sexuality and fear of reprisal for simply being himself. Though he aimed for the record to address his personal life while still allowing the emotional quality of the lyrics to be universal, it was the most pointed moments that stood out most. The same is true of tonight, as it is the very direct, punchy and glaringly unsubtle ‘Hot Scary Summer’ and ‘Little Bigot’ that provide the set’s highlights. It’s doubtful that everyone in the audience has the same firsthand experience of homophobia that O’Brien can attest to, but in the singalong that ensues it’s sure that they’d all happily band together to reject such outdated values.
The backdrop of the stage is the cover of the band’s recent Where Have You Been All My Life?, a collection of songs from throughout O’Brien’s short ongoing career re-recorded to better reflect his sensibilities as an artist in the here and now. A follow-up proper to Darling Arithmetic has not yet been announced in the works, but there’s a marked change here that suggests very promising things on the horizon. O’Brien is a strong solo artist through and through, but there is a palpable affection for his band that’s infectious in its enthusiasm. Further, the feeling of community created by their performance is remarkable for a project that initially started from O’Brien’s reluctance to work with other musicians following the disintegration of previous bands. To give the audience some credit, by the time the set wraps up, mouths are shut and all eyes are on the stage. Conor O’Brien is an unlikely ringleader, but it suits him well.
Villagers photographed for State by Mark Earley