Live Music + Gig Reviews

Villagers @ Royal Festival Hall, London

8 June 2024

Conor O’Brien and co share the surreptitious, miniature musical worlds of new album That Golden Time in an emotionally resonating show

Conor O'Brien of Villagers (Photo: Andrew Whitton)

Conor O’Brien of Villagers (Photo: Andrew Whitton)

Villagers has been the musical vehicle for Irish singer songwriter Conor O’Brien since 2008 and the intervening years have seen them grow from modest beginnings to the sort of act that now commands spaces like the Royal Festival Hall. Ranging from small scale, intimate indie folk to more expansive, driven alternative rock he has managed to occupy a sort of musical middle ground that has attracted a loyal following. Tonight’s show focused on excellent new album That Golden Time, the sixth album under the Villagers name, that has seen O’Brien further refine his sound.

Support came from Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Hawk and he played a set that showcased his many talents, namely adroit songcraft, a sturdy, charismatic voice and a confident yet relaxed demeanour. Last year’s Angel Number album is represented by stripped back versions of Bridget St John, Money and Dog-eared August and he finishes with The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion 1973. Acknowledging its opening line of “to write a cathedral, I’ll need a ballpoint pen, it’ll sound like Common People sung by Christopher Wren”, he comments how this is the closest it has been performed to St Paul’s Cathedral. With a new album slated for release later in the year, things are looking up for Hawk.

Villagers begin with the title track from the new album, immediately setting the tone for much of what is to follow. It’s the first of several surreptitious, miniature musical worlds to be shared, languid, nostalgic and warmly delivered. Truly Alone and First Responder soon follow, perfect examples of the type of songs on the album that quietly work themselves deep into your consciousness. “I aim my pistol while you aim at brilliance, I learn of injury while you learn resilience” O’Brien sings on the latter, revealing his strength as an intelligent, moving lyricist and the song grows until it reaches its uplifting finalé. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful moment. You Lucky One is expanded tonight into something more imposing than on record while I Want What I Don’t Need goes the other way, skeletal and fragile. Brother Hen meanwhile is an example of how the songs resonate emotionally despite their slight presence (in a way not dissimilar to Patrick Watson).

The consistency of the new album is broadly preserved tonight, but there are also subtle expansions. The gauzy Keepsake still suggests what a collaboration with Tame Impala would sound like, and Behind The Curtain features an extended electro outro. Some of the older songs played tonight offer more in the way of animation and uplift, namely Nothing Arrived and The Waves from 2013’s {Awayland} and Pieces from debut release Becoming A Jackal. At the other end of the spectrum we get the heartfelt messaging of Everything I Am Is Yours and unashamed romance of So Simpatico from Fever Dreams (although curiously, The First Day is omitted).

The encore brings everything together nicely. No Drama from the new album arrives with a sense of sweeping scale and tonight feels like something out of a Yann Tiersen soundtrack, while they revisit their back catalogue again for warmly delivered versions of That Day and Trick Of The Mind. O’Brien might not have the highest profile, but he’s undoubtedly a songwriter of note. Alongside his bandmates tonight they managed to fill the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall effortlessly, and simultaneously suggested that in That Golden Time they might have released one of the ‘under the radar’ albums of the year.

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