Villagers give stellar performance at the Oxford O2


Having recently surrounded myself once more with the music of Irish indie-folk band Villagers, as preparation for a short piece for OxStu’s Mercury Prize special, my anticipation for this gig was at something of a high when I arrived (admittedly a couple of minutes late) at the O2 Academy on Sunday evening. I am fond of this venue, its somewhat diminutive size lending itself in my mind to the kind of intimate lyricism of a band like Villagers, but it has to be said that the room wasn’t completely filled out, and the atmosphere certainly suffered a hit as a result. However, once my friends (one fan, one total newcomer) and I worked our way into the crowd nearer the front this mattered far less, especially as, and this to me was the life-blood of the entire evening, frontman Conor O’Brien’s presence was somewhat all-consuming. From the bittersweet opener, ‘My Lighthouse’, to the pulsing electronic sound of The Bell, O’Brien sang with profound intensity, his melodic improvisations spilling over into occasional shouts and yelps.

Villagers in concert
Villagers in concert


This gave this disarming sense of watching someone not on stage, but alone, in the comfort of their own home perhaps, their emotional investment in the music rendering them oblivious to all around them. It was certainly a captivating and impressive musical performance.

Having only released two albums, the set contained a good balance of new and ‘old’ material, with the more acoustic sound of debut album Becoming a Jackal being given new life through the fuller, more conventional rock-band set up of {Awayland}. The performances were tight, the band technically skilled and yet, apart from O’Brien, they lacked much presence as a group. What’s more, O’Brien remained all but silent in the gaps between songs; his general confidence while playing seemed to wain in these pauses, as if he suddenly remembered all the people watching and felt embarrassed of his prior intensity. All evening I felt pulled in during one song and pushed back preceding the arrival of the next.

{Awayland}... Nominated for a Mercury this year
{Awayland}… Nominated for a Mercury this year


But when I did feel drawn into the music, I really felt it. My two favourite songs, the nostalgic, yearning ‘Home’ and the beguiling love-song ‘Twenty-Seven Strangers’ were, unsurprisingly, two such moments. The stripped back, acoustic sound of the latter especially, the audience softly singing along, evoked an almost congregational feeling and one was one the most spellbinding moments of the evening. Similarly, there was a noticeable buzz, a shift in gear, which ran around the crowd at the start of the second-album single Nothing Arrived and placed it among the most enjoyable offerings of the set.

There is little to criticise musically about Villagers’ performance. O’Brien is a talented craftsmen when it comes to melody and lyricism, his band executed the songs with precision. However, the occasionally alienating intervals between songs, the ever-present space at the back of the room, and the mostly static crowd meant that the expectations that been building in the weeks prior to the gig were never quite met.



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