As an expectant crowd awaits, the frame of a tiny Irishman steps out onto the stage. A tentative wave, before the man launches a cappella into the soon to be released Cecelia and Her Selfhood. It’s a haunting start to an evening that would prove to be complex, confusing and, at times, breathtaking.
It’s a year to the day since Conor O’Brien’s Villagers released their Mercury-nominated album, and tonight the songs sound every bit as fresh this evening as they did last May. A man of few words, O’Brien’s interaction with his audience is limited:
No matter, though, as it’s his singing, whose intensity and sweetness seems to defy its undemonstrative delivery, which carries the set. O’Brien is joined by his pianist after a couple songs for a heavily (and brilliantly) re-worked Ship of Promises, and it’s this foray into familiar territory which seems to warm the crowd up.
It’s not until five songs in that the full band make an appearance, launching into the delicate The Meaning of the Ritual. An Antlers-esque crescendo feels a little milked, but it adds a visceral quality to an already cathartic song.
Becoming A Jackal was a collection of musically-simple, accessible songs but often unconventional songs, with O’Brien’s lyrical opacity providing ample for its listeners to think about. Live, Villagers seem unsure whether they’re a folk band or something heavier; a Mogwai style noise intro to I Saw the Dead is confusing, and a little unwelcome. And yet despite the distortion, O’Brien’s hypnotic voice breaks through to devastating effect.
The evening’s highlight is Grateful Song, which explores ambivalence in relationships: “I am grateful for the company / I am grateful to belong / and I am thankful for the misery”. It’s catchy, too. As the set draws to a close, O’Brien repeats a chorus of, “I might as well be anyone at all”. Thankfully, he’s not.
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