Empire Music Hall, Belfast
10th December 2018

It’s been a good year for Conor O’Brien and Villagers. One of the best albums to come out of Ireland in 2018 was ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim’. On Spotify alone there were 47 million streams by nine million fans, clocking up two million hours in 65 countries. That’s some going!

The chance to hear these songs live at the Empire Music Hall, Belfast on a dank, dark Monday night in December is a welcome blast of light. It’s a sold-out show; Villagers have a loyal fan base here. It’s tightly packed but a corner seat in the balcony is the ideal vantage point.

A little bit of car trouble meant I was disappointed to miss part of Kitt Philippa’s set, but made it in time to catch the aching, honest and utterly beautiful ‘Human’ – which justifiably won Single of the Year at the Northern Ireland Music Awards last month (made all the more special as it was the only award based on a public vote).

I am struck, not just by the reverence of the crowd at this point, but by the purity of voice, which ironically seems to transcend this human realm. Kitt has made new friends tonight. A star on the rise.

It’s a bit of a tight squeeze on stage for five Villagers, but a warm welcome is gratefully received. There’s a weird noise coming from somewhere – babbling voices, a strange cacophony – I’m not sure where it’s coming from or what it can possibly mean? It builds up, like some strange foray into the Tower of Babel. It confuses me so – then abruptly stops. Not sure what that was about.

Straight into ‘Sweet Saviour’. Then ‘Again’ (the opening track of ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim’). By now the crowd is fully warmed up for the beautiful ‘Love Came with All That It Brings’. He describes it as a depressing song – a story of overwhelming loss of hope – but nothing’s going to bring the vibe down. Fragile, it is packaged and delivered by Conor O’Brien, with love.

Through the space of the next hour and a half we get to hear all nine glorious songs from ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim’. It feels like a celebration of a work defined by creative ingenuity.

It’s nigh impossible to pick a favourite track from Villagers fourth album, but ‘Trick of the Light’ is a winner. ‘Fool’ he dedicates to himself (possibly for the bad kebab choice before the show). A tongue in cheek, self-deprecating masterpiece, takes a swipe at our social media obsessed society.

‘Long Time Waiting’, ‘Real Go Getter’ and ‘Hold Me Down’ take us through the rest of Villagers fourth album to its near entirety, interspersed with choices from the back catalogue – such as ‘Courage’ and ‘Hot Scary Summer’. It seems it doesn’t matter what present O’Brien pulls out of the sack, it’s greeted with open arms by this crowd.

The final track on the new album is a tribute to nineteenth-century mathematician Ada Lovelace (the only legitimate child of poet Lord Byron). She is often overlooked by the history books for her work  on the first general purpose “computer”, Babbage’s “Analytical Machine”. Credited by some as being the original computer programmer), she recognised the potential beyond its original purpose, and published the first algorithm to be carried out by such a machine. Poetry by numbers you could say. It’s worthy of Conor O’Brien to pluck a brilliant, marginalised woman from her forgotten past, and to do his bit in bringing her name and achievements into contemporary consciousness. She pioneered what has transformed this modern world (for better, or worse). Now, finally, the babbling cacophony of voices that heralded Villagers set on stage returns to close the set. The wheel turned full circle. Beautiful. I think I get it now. Suddenly it all makes sense. Bravo!

The inevitable encore ensues. O’Brien has donned a seasonal Santa hat, which sits coquettishly askew.

’27 Strangers’ follows. It is indeed a wonderful life (for I’d forgotten this one). Finally, a Christmas song – or as O’Brien explains – tongue firmly in cheek – “as close as we get to a Christmas song. It’s about existential dread”.

The song is, of course, ‘Nothing Arrived’.

All in all, a beautiful sold-out gig, full of grace and subtle with soul. The applause reaches rapture levels. However, I was waiting for something, and it didn’t arrive – my favourite Villagers track, ‘Becoming a Jackal’. But that’s ok. Next time.