Villagers - Razzmatazz 2, Barcelona

The crowds in the capital of Catalonia can be tough. Artists who manage to really raise the roof is a fairly rare occurrence. The man behind Villagers, Conor O’Brien, has his work cut out for him. But right from the off he bounds on stage with confidence to spare. He’s looking dapper with a lightly greying quiff and matching blazer and his four bandmates are all smiles and eager exuberance.

O’Brien greets us in Spanish and begins vigorously strumming his dinky acoustic guitar as he launches into ‘Sweet Saviour’ from his recently released fourth album, The Art of Pretending to Swim. It’s a solid start as his willing energy instantly connects. A few more songs in and the audience are even swaying a bit.

“Light the fucken’ place up!” bellows someone who’s obviously not from Barcelona but closer to O’Brien’s Irish home. It’s acknowledged with a wry smile from the singer but what he has in mind is far more nuanced, as his livelier folk-rock numbers will be counterbalanced by moments of quiet restraint and fragile beauty. One such moment is when he confesses to the crowd, “I’m an introvert… are there any introverts out there? Yeaaaah, party time. This song, well, it’s about the inside of your soul… it’s called, 'Hold Me Down'.”

It’s a delicate song that builds with layered arrangements, feather-light harmonies and ethereal sounds from the “spaceboard”. The four-piece band have clearly knitted together well on this album tour and with brass, keys, bass and electronica all complimenting O’Brien’s fingerpicking and wild strumming, they create a fluctuating roll of songs that keep the crowd always wanting more.

Half way through and O’Brien lets us know he and the band are the most drunk they’ve been on the previous 25 dates they’ve played. He looks slightly apologetic but the liquid courage is doing no harm at all. Before he launches into the beguiling ‘Ada’ he explains that the inspiration is Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century mathematician and Lord Byron’s daughter, who is widely recognised as the first computer programmer.  “So, this is for Ada… who I love, but also kind of hate, because of the compulsion to constantly be on and checking my phone and emails and so on.”

As the gig continues to build the audience all seem to be well acquainted with the material from The Art of Pretending to Swim. ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’ is a crowd favourite with some people chiming in on the lines, “Love came with all that it brings/Including the fact that it stings like a motherfucker/Love came with all that it brings/And just as the fat lady sings/We want more.”

O’Brien also cherry-picks from his 2010 debut Becoming a Jackal and 2015’s Darling Arithmetic. Two standout tracks that deal with the homophobia O’Brien has had to contend with are ‘Hot Scary Summer’ and ‘Courage’ – O’Brien pours genuine emotion into both songs and the integrity of the performance is not lost on the 200 or more fans who were smart enough to venture out on a rainy night.

Domino Records has a brilliantly diverse roster of artists and you can see why label founder Lawrence Bell wanted Villagers in his stable – the band has an instantly recognisable sound and O’Brien’s writing just keeps getting better. In tonight’s performance, O’Brien exerts himself with full force gusto and the band keep pace with him.

At the close of the obligatory encore, all those anxiously wondering whether the fan favourite ‘Nothing Arrived’ from 2013 album {Awayland} would be intentionally omitted, breathe a sigh of relief as O’Brien croons “Savanna scatters and the seabird sings/So why should we fear what travel brings?/ What were we hoping to get out of this?/ Some kind of momentary bliss?”

It would have been remiss to leave the song out of the set-list as it is Villagers’ most popular song, with a live version clocking up a staggering 117 million streaming plays. The band stand quietly in the shadows for this show closer as O’Brien strips the song back to its bare bones and edges to the lip of the stage, ramping up the emotional impact. The venue is utterly silent and you just know that tears are welling up left, right and centre. O’Brien senses that the audience were dying to join in singing “I guess I was busyyyyyy… when nothing came,” and so after he sings the last note he signals to the band to play the closing bars again and every voice in the house joins in for a unifying end to the evening.

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