On a blustery May evening in Brixton, on the tail end of the longest Winter in living memory, we hurried along to see the critically acclaimed “Villagers” at The Electric. Due to a backlog of albums from 2012 I have yet to pick up their newest LP “Awayland”. If you want the short review of this gig, here it is: I ordered the CD the very next morning.
Appearing onstage to no bombast beyond a cheering audience, lead singer Conor O’Brien opened with a soft finger picking number, to which the audience fell dutifully silent. This was an audience here to listen and absorb. Villagers are a lyric-heavy band and their fans are understanding of this. In return, Conor presents his vocals with a clarity of diction that is often lost in live performances. His stories were well told and we were brought along for the ride with every word.
His vocal is very well controlled, tight on pitch as well as articulation and he manages a good level of control over his break to his oft employed falsetto. The backing vocals from his band mates are well timed and complimentary, never intruding on his monologues. The sound overall was well managed; a solid nod to the sound crew here. Vocals cut through nicely while all the instruments sat open and refined in the hall, and volume was not needlessly pushed. A well behaved audience was of benefit here – a more raucous crowd could easily have drowned out the acoustic led moments, of which there were many.
But more surprising were the rockier moments, which came more often than expected. Primarily from the numbers I didn’t know and therefore assume reside on the new disc. The band manage a tight control over the classic “loud/soft” aesthetic of rock music and a few tracks were treated to a psychedelic outro, with fuzz guitar creeping up along with the vocal reverb to a sonic climax and sudden, jolting stop. These sections served to make the acoustic moments even more intimate, when they inevitably returned to their stripped down storytelling.
The drummer manages a brilliant balance of playing “to the song”, adding flourishes to the tracks without impeding on the all important narratives. The electric guitarist found plenty of manoeuvrability around the tracks and the bass often moved up the frets to add interesting counterpoints. The lead guitarist played the customary game of changing guitars between many of the songs, whereas Conor stuck to his one, trusty acoustic throughout, sat high on his body for ease of finger-picking.
The new songs seem to be a little more adventurous in terms of arrangements and rhythms, with some great grooves underpinning some of the numbers in the second half of the set.
Conor is a polite front man, and is perhaps fortunate to have the audience he has (although there is a chicken and egg argument to be had here of course). His stage chatter is minimal and far more mumbled than his crystal clear singing voice. On the louder numbers and end-of-song crescendos his body starts to move more freely and I got the feeling he enjoyed these looser moments. Perhaps the need to remember his wordy numbers while playing and singing ties him, metaphorically, to the spot in front of his mic, eyes gazing towards to back of the crowd.
The audience was not a singalong crowd, or perhaps more reasonably, these songs are not singalong numbers. I was surprised by the omission of catchy-chorus led “That Day”, an encore shoe-in I had wrongly assumed. His lyrics are to be taken as they arrive, not pre-empted in the listener’s head and sung back at the band. The last track before the encore “Earthly Pleasures” was the stand out for me. A to-the-point chorus with a story led, near rap-style verse that spun a yarn far too clever for me to follow on first listen. I look forward to getting to know this song on the album.
A great venue, a cold cider and some lovely live music warmed the dreary May night outside. Good work lads!