Villagers - Live At Village Underground, London

At times, astonishingly good

If the BRIT Awards, which is taking place in the same city on this bitterly cold evening, had any sense of intelligence about it they would be giving Villagers as many gongs as humanly possible. Their loss is everyone else's gain as their reputation as both a recording artist and live act continues to ascend.

This is the first of two sold out shows at Village Underground for Villagers – a rare example of perfect naming synergy – and anticipation is high. The beginning of 2013, which already feels like lightyears ago, was heralded with '{Awayland}', a worthy and vital follow-up to the Mercury Prize-nominated 'Becoming A Jackal'.

Conor O'Brien and his band had already won a legion of followers; his distinctive and beautiful vocals that would make listeners' hearts flutter matched with superb songcraft was mesmerising when he burst into the limelight in 2010. Watching them transform since has been fascinating. Throughout tonight's set, they manage to shift effortlessly both their acoustic-led soft and tender side with the sharper, robust sound that dominates most of their newer material.

Whilst the older songs are the ones that get nearly all the whoops and cheers, it's the '{Awayland}' tracks that really pack the most punches. One of the early highlights is 'The Bell', loaded with suspense and fear, as is 'Grateful Song', which sounds like the long lost cousin of Radiohead's 'Nice Dream' (no bad thing at all). 'In A Newfound Land You Are Free' sounds a little lost on the album but in this setting, with the entire crowd watching in attentive silence save for the odd murmers near the bar, it's gorgeous.

From this point onwards, it's no exaggeration to say that every song is a stunner. 'The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)' and 'Earthly Pleasure' are both brillianty performed and the main set conludes with the dramatic 'Ship Of Promises', an intoxicating whirlwind of a tune. Amazingly, the momentum doesn't cease there. The crowd are generously treated to a lengthy, starting with a heart-stopping solo version of 'That Day'. This is followed by 'Rhythm Composer' (again, a track that thrives a lot more in a live environment), the crowd-pleaser 'Becoming A Jackal', a version of 'The Waves' that's so intense it threatens to send Conor into raptures and ends with the wonderfully melancholic sigh of 'Nothing Arrived'.

If the first half was anywhere near as outstanding as the second then this would have been a truly special evening. Still, this is a performance that is, at times, astonishingly good. Admittedly, it still feels like Villagers are an outfit that are exploring different sounds and textures but, on this evidence, they are most certainly on the right track. As well as their impressive songwriting, the live shows are becoming increasingly enthralling.

 

Words by Max Raymond

Photos by Richard Gray

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