Live Review: Villagers


Conor O’Brien writes some of the most beautiful indie folk music around these days, so it’s only right that he takes to the stage in arguably Glasgow’s most beautiful music venue, the Òran Mór’s stunning Auditorium. Originating in the seaside town of Dún Laoghaire in County Dublin, quite a few of Villagers’ songs naturally centre around the ocean, and hearing these played live under the gorgeous deep blue ceiling mural by Alasdair Gray just feels so very right.

The tour promoting the third album Darling Arithmetic brought the band to this same venue in early 2015, although that was in the low-ceilinged downstairs venue more suited to louder, rowdier shows; there’s a palpable sense of excitement and wonder as we stood waiting in the Auditorium, and nobody seemed ashamed to squint and gawp at the ceiling. Quite without warning the lights dimmed and the band walked on, O’Brien at the rear in a neat white shirt and a tidier beard than the last time Glasgow saw him.  Villagers’ live line-up has changed dramatically since their inception, moving away from the rockier, more electric sound of old into more traditional folk with a double bass, harp, and trumpet accompanying the only founding member left. The gig’s first real spine-chilling moment was the debut record’s opening track ‘I Saw The Dead’, with the frontman retreating to far stage left to play the meandering, relentlessly eerie piano line that connects the first line to the last, with fittingly haunting vocal harmonies from all four musicians onstage. He stays there until the new LP’s only new song, ‘Memoir’, which owes something to The Beautiful South in its name-listing and already timeless sound.

While Darling Arithmetic wasn’t much of a sonic departure from the previous albums, the standout feature was how the acoustic guitar and harp worked in unison, and this is clearer still in a live setting with Mali Llywelyn adding a brighter edge to the gently fingerpicked guitar. One of the most radio-friendly songs (though none of Villagers’ material is particularly experimental) is rendered almost unrecognisable, as ‘Nothing Arrived’ was built up then plunged down to a hush just where the studio version reaches a climax; O’Brien’s constant reworking of his old songs is what keeps new live LP Where Have You Been All My Life? an interesting and satisfying listen. What else made tonight seem more special than the downstairs gig was the inclusion of a few seldom-heard old favourites: half the audience fondly sings every word of ‘Twenty Seven Strangers’, ‘The Pact’ and ‘My Lighthouse’ – it’s obvious Conor’s writing has a special place in the hearts of many in the Òran Mór.

Radio 1’s Live Lounge regulars could take a leaf out of Villagers’ leafy book – cover versions should be chosen carefully.  The band retook the stage after a very short break to perform a tender, horn-backed and mostly faithful take on Glenn Campbell’s 1968 classic ‘Wichita Lineman’, before closing out with ‘That Day’ and Darling Arithmetic’s bittersweet lead single ‘Courage’. Strangely missed was the seminal ‘Becoming A Jackal’, but no one seemed to mind very much as we filed out, glowing slightly.  One expects Conor O’Brien to disappear back to Ireland for a while after this tour is over, as he normally does, and when he returns I fully expect him to retake his throne as the quiet prince of modern folk.   

[Ciaran McQueen]




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