Live Review: Villagers, Sheffield Leadmill (8/2/13)

Villagers‘ frontman Conor O’Brien is a perfectionist. This much is evident before Villagers have even taken to the stage: the perfectly tuned sound of all the onstage instruments is more than evident in the soundcheck. This is one of the main reasons behind the irresistible rise of Villagers: they are one of very few bands nowadays who truly come alive live, and their live performances have therefore gained them thousands of new fans. This explains the palpable excitement in Sheffield’s Leadmill ahead of the first date on Villagers’ tour to support their new album {Awayland}.

This excitement is entirely fulfilled as Conor O’Brien and his backing band shuffle onstage for the quiet melancholic opener ‘My Lighthouse’. O’Brien’s unique voice pierces the stunned silence of Leadmill as the rest of Villagers help to create a hypnotically beautiful sound.


The most obvious early impression of Conor O’Brien’s onstage presence is that he is a very diminutive figure, or as someone next to me loudly put it: “he’s tiny!”. Nor is O’Brien the most charismatic of figures verbally: his onstage remarks are minimal and he responds to a female member of the audience screaming “I love you, Conor” with a confused “what?”.

Conor O’Brien does not need to be tall or verbally charismatic though, because musically he is immensely charismatic and a huge figure onstage throughout the songs. This is demonstrated as Villagers captivate the audience with a selection of tracks from {Awayland}, such as ‘Passing a Message’ and ‘Nothing Arrived’. These songs suit the full band setup that Villagers have adopted for {Awayland} and more than fill the Leadmill with a haunting feel of mystique.

The only flaw with this full band setup that Villagers have adopted for this tour comes with material from their first album Becoming a Jackal. On previous tours Villagers had favoured a setup, where Conor had a minimal backing band for the more minimalist songs from this album, such as ‘Becoming a Jackal’ and ‘Set The Tigers Free’. These segments were very successful, because they drew more attention to the haunting nature of Conor O’Brien’s voice that suited these songs. {Awayland}, however, has more focus on Villagers as a full band. This means that there is also a full band setup for songs from Becoming a Jackal; meaning that these songs lose some of their power live and don’t quite mesmerise the audience in the same way as they have in the past.

The full band setup was incredibly beneficial again, though, when it came to ‘The Waves’ and ‘Earthly Pleasures’ from {Awayland} towards the end of the set. ‘The Waves’, like on record, slowly built with a distinctive rhythm working in tandem with O’Brien’s voice; that was until the final minute of the song, when guitarist Tommy McLaughlin began to turn up the settings on his guitar, much like Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. The result of this was a thundering climax from the whole band that wowed the audience and left them in no doubt that they were in the presence of some immensely talented musicians. This continued into ‘Earthly Pleasures’, which built to less of a heavy climax, but still demonstrated five intelligent and talented musicians working in perfect harmony to create a beautiful sound.

With the encore came one song with a more minimalist setup of Conor O’Brien, a guitar and a keyboardist. That song was ‘Memoir’, which delighted the audience. The remainder of the encore continued at a very high standard and as ‘Ship of Promises’ signalled the end of the set, the audience seemed very satisfied, with remarks such as “they just keep getting better” being the general consensus.

The only real flaw with the gig was the crowd, who were surprisingly noisy at times during songs. This did not seem to affect the concentration of Villagers though and the music was at such a perfect pitch that it tended to block out the sound of any ignorant members of the crowd anyway. Overall Villagers gave a faultless performance on the opening night of their UK tour, Conor O’Brien feared that they might be “a bit first giggy”, but there was no sign of rustiness from these masters of live performance. Villagers seem to have a magic ability live that seems to keep gaining them new fans and on the strength of the opening night, this tour will not be any different.

Liam Coleman

…Liam has been listening to Leonard Cohen – Tower of Song…


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