Villagers & Pat Dam Smyth @ Hare and Hounds, 9 June 2019

Every once in a while you see a performance by a band that makes you re-evaluate their entire back catalogue. I have liked Villagers since their debut in 2010 and have been impressed with each successive release, but only now I have seen them live do I revisit those albums with a renewed sense of wonder. I went from liking this band to absolutely loving them.

But first I must tell you about the support Pat Dam Smyth. Pat is a solo artist from Northern Ireland whose vocal at times has an uncanny resemblance to Leonard Cohen, however, where Leonard tends to only sound like Leonard, Pat’s voice is much more versatile and moves through registers and timbres that hooked me in during the first song. And with each song the unconventional structures and interesting melodic lines drew me in further. Pat starts the set on shimmer reverb soaked electric guitar with a recorded backing track and then moves to piano where the modulations and modal scales are more pronounced and beautiful. As I didn’t recognise these songs on the vinyl EP I bought from him after the show, I guess and hope they will appear on his forthcoming album ‘The Last King’ (coming out in July). If you are a fan of great songwriting and heartfelt performances you really must look out for this release, and I hope he returns to Birmingham soon with his band because that would give his live show an added dimension that is clear from his recorded work.

After the break Conor O’Brien’s Villagers squeeze through the crowd onto the small Hare and Hounds stage and it is immediately obvious that the band’s change of sound for the new album ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is going to take centre stage. The brass section and jazz arrangement from the album version of ‘Long Time Waiting’ permeates the rest of the setlist to stunning effect, along with the drum and bass/RnB influenced drum style, which pumps and throbs and pulsates throughout. On top of that are beautiful synth and piano lines, and floating above everything is the sparkling, heartbreaking voice of Conor. His performance on the band’s recorded work always feels he is right up close to the microphone and right next to your ear, making his songs sound even more like a confessional: personal, intimate, emotional. I considered that live the band’s sound could not be recreated, but if anything, the intimacy is magnified, the emotion multiplied beyond my expectations. The sound mix is just perfect and seeing it delivered with such heart right in front of you has put this gig up there with the best I have ever seen. Seriously.

For anyone not in love with the new album the setlist may be a kick in the pants, but for those, like me who think it is their best and most imaginative work so far, you are in for a treat. Of the nine tracks on the album, they only do not play it’s most subdued but beautiful moment ‘Hold Me Down’. There is plenty of room for the best of the previous albums though, albeit slightly rearranged for this latest band incarnation, and it’s only when you hear them all together do you fully appreciate what an incredible body of work Villagers has.

Highlights for me though are both off the new album, firstly ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’, a song that soars and swoops, moving through musical genres with a carefree abandon, and featuring a well thought out sample from The Dixie Hummingbirds’ gospel track ‘What Then’. When I first heard the song last year, it took me a while to realise the weight of the lyrics contained in the song, the way Conor half-disguises the expletive within the melody is genius; when you know it’s there it is impossible not to hear it (like one of those optical illusions, that once seen cannot be unseen, but it can take ages to find it). Secondly, the absolute highlight of the year is the first encore when Conor returns to the stage alone. He almost apologetically introduces the song by explaining that when the band version was recorded for the album it wasn’t quite right and when the band rehearsed it for the show it still wasn’t right, so he will play it just voice and piano the way it was intended. He then plays the best song on the album ‘Fool’, which is just devastatingly brilliant anyway, but reduced to its bare bones is just a thrill to hear. Not many songs can be deconstructed in this way, but Conor built them with solid foundations and this performance proves it beyond any doubt. Stunning, simply stunning.

Conor also debuts a new song by the band, which judging by its title is either ready to be released now, or won’t see the light of day for 13 months. It’s called ‘Summer Song’ and manages to be both stupidly catchy and emotionally heartwarming at the same time. Conor is clearly trying for a summer smash with this song and sheepishly, almost apologetically reveals the song’s title to his diehard fans, as if he is somehow attempting to sell out… rubbing shoulders with Mumford & Sons will do that to a man I guess (they are currently their support act on the UK leg, having already had my other favourite band, Gang of Youths as support on the European dates). Nonetheless the new song manages to stay on the right side of being a cheesy pop song and unless there is a hidden ‘motherfucker’ in the words somewhere, is bound to get a tonne of airplay when it is finally released.

Final song of the set is ‘Nothing Arrived’ with the achingly good lyrics: ”I waited for something and something died. So I waited for nothing, and nothing arrived” and the final outtro “I guess I was busy (when nothing arrived)” that the audience do their best to sing along with and hold that “bus-yyyyyyyyyyyy” for as long as Conor does. I look around and hope no one passes out trying. And then with heartfelt thanks and a promise to chat and drink in the bar downstairs afterwards, the best gig of the year, if not ever, is over.

Villagers do something exceptional, they make great records and then when they rearrange tracks for a live setting, make them more interesting, but ensuring that the essence of the song is retained (unlike others, I’m looking at you Bob Dylan and Adam Duritz). The band’s ability to move from musical genre to genre is a lesson to others who are afraid to experiment and thus remain restricted: Villagers are joyously unshackled. Who knows where Villagers will go on their musical journey next, but like American counterpart Sufjan Stevens, Conor and his village people are able to grow and change with every release and always have an ear for a great melody and never a bad word… well, not never.

Sweet Saviour
Everything I Am Is Yours
Becoming a Jackal
My Lighthouse
Love Came With All That It Brings
Hot Scary Summer
I Saw the Dead
The Waves
Long Time Waiting
Real Go-Getter

Fool (Conor Solo)
A Trick of the Light
Summer Song (new song)
Nothing Arrived

Review: Alan Nielson

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