It’s been quite a week for Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien. While touring his latest, deeply personal album ‘Darling Arithmetic’, his home country begins a glorious civil rights revolution by legalising same-sex marriages. Most nights on the Irish leg of the tour have sold out and as the band take the stage for the final night in Belfast, Conor is visibly beaming – a man on form and brimming with exuberance.
It’s a rare seated layout in the Mandela Hall, a venue usually packed with a rowdier student crowd. There’s a reverential hush even for Ciaran Lavery who provides a fantastic opening act. ‘Left For America’ is surely one of the best tunes a Northern Irish writer has penned in recent years and as Lavery weaves wit with a Waits-like rasp and storytelling ability, you can’t help but feel a huge career beckons.
Villagers take the stage shortly after nine o’clock, settling in amongst guitars, synths, harp, drums and flugelhorn. ‘Darling Arithmetic’, the title track from their latest album is the perfect intro and with ‘Set The Tigers Free’ and ‘Dawning On Me’ the band are in full flow. The stunning three part harmonies, brushed drums, atmospheric keys and that distinctive O’Brien vocal sound idyllic in the darkness.
Some of the more well-known songs in the repertoire have been reworked by the live band. ‘Nothing Arrived’ in particular is a highlight with Paul Simon influenced guitar riffing and a bit of Johnny Cash style upright bass. There’s a distinct Nashville swagger to ‘No One To Blame’, an impassioned song of unrequited love, which O’Brien jokes will “lighten the mood”. ‘That Day’ is also beautifully rearranged and the band are at ease, confident and enjoying their time on stage.
Conor’s latest tunes have often touched on issues of equality and homophobia but tonight in the wake of the historic Irish decision to back equality, they sound more like defiant anthems. ‘Everything I Am Is Yours” suffers a false start but when the drums kick in it ushers in a triumphant second half of the set. With a cheeky grin, Conor introduces ‘All Or Nothing’ with a guitar lick of Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ – well, we can hardly call it ‘Here Comes The Bride’ tonight.
‘Hot Scary Summer’ and ‘Little Bigot’ are highlights on the new record and are done justice tonight. Green lights laser out over the crowd as the tempo lifts. Sticks crash down on drums and synths swell into a rousing version of ‘The Waves’. There’s a standing ovation before the set closes and O’Brien tests the crowds lyric knowledge. ‘Becoming A Jackal’ is returned word for word, the band rejoin for harmonies and stirring instrumentation on ‘Pieces’ and ‘Courage’. The latter is dedicated to Terri Hooley and the crowd rises for a second ovation.
The stage returns to darkness, the final chords linger and a hushed chatter begins. In what’s been a historic week for Ireland, one of their finest songwriters and performers has done them proud. You can’t help but feel you’ve witnessed something very special indeed.