Photography: John Middleton /


Arts Club 25/10/18

Speaking to Conor O’Brien back in September for Bido Lito! 93, we touched on the communal spirited name given to his project. The ethos of such a name, anyway. He agreed the term VILLAGERS served a purpose in the fleeting stages of his career; it was ambiguous, and it allowed O’Brien the freedom to act as something of a narrator. While the themes and narratives of his music were most certainly his, the signature stamp of Villagers gave the sense of a communal understanding. He was speaking to, or of, shared experience. While this separation gave way to myriad voices in his tales, he agreed it may not always be positive – in the personal sense. Fear of losing touch with the surest writing hand, perhaps. It wasn’t that the ‘we are villagers’ mantra was whimsical or in need of ditching, but as his musical capabilities have grown, reaching and resonating with a growing audience over four albums, the project was no longer had to be so explicitly communal. It was no longer a community of characters. Rather, O’Brien now takes it upon himself to play them all.

With The Art Of Pretending To Swim, O’Brien transitioned from warm faces sharing stories sat around a campfire; he became the anti-preacher, the antidote to the jarring voices stood behind the lecterns of his youth.

In a sense, O’Brien is more exposed than ever, his soul firmly on the line, and on the right side of history in terms of his attitude towards faith. But this heightened exposure isn’t laboursome, not if this demeanour on stage is anything to go by. Here in Liverpool, in the midst of a European tour, he is more than the mouthpiece of Villagers. He has forgone the role of town crier; he now looks through the prism of a resident living right in the heart of his imagination. Here, with acoustic guitar slung to the hip, the Villagers moniker tips towards ironic as O’Brien delves deep into his soul to where he is self-marooned, granted solitude, even when stood before a sold-out crowd. So much introspection, achieved within the space of one song, Sweet Saviour – so poignant and flawless in its reverberations.

Villagers Image 2

Sonically, the performance is full of texture. Each and every layer of a song’s recorded counterpart is finely woven into the stagecraft. As a full band, Villagers are a collective voice in harmony. The set covers the entirety of The Art Of Pretending To Swim and, such is the immaculate live imagining, at times it can feel a little too perfect, a little arm chair and stereo. From an audience’s perspective, that is. On stage, each swerve and sleight of hand is a joyous embrace with the acoustic guitar. It’s far from dimly lit folk relegated to a room of whispers, or the quietest corner of an open mic night.

O’Brien does however opt to change into the clothes of his former creative mindset; a rendition of Becoming A Jackal draws a sway from the audience which is otherwise chin stroking. Elsewhere in the mix comes Hot Scary Summer, a song whose feeling seems no less diluted when asked to stop and recall, with clarity, night after night throughout the tour. Its hazy reflection is sustained by an eerie mumbling of words within the room as though all are transported, minds commandeered, to the scene O’Brien speaks of for four and a half minutes.

Currently, there’s no real ambiguity about Villagers. As live act, Villagers present a complete jigsaw of wonderous detail. It’s important, however, not to get lost in the final product delivered on stage. The experience is incomplete without acknowledging the hours O’Brien has spent assembling this puzzle, bit by bit, memory by memory, to leave us with wholesome picture of his soul.

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