Villagers, Old Vic Tunnels, London

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The Independent Culture

It’s to the Mercury Music Prize’s credit that it brings attention to artists such as Villagers, whose album Becoming A Jackal might otherwise have slipped under the radar in a burgeoning folk-rock scene.

That 27 year-old Dublin songwriter Conor O’Brien is a special talent is clear from the start of this show – the first in the tunnel beneath the Old Vic Theatre. The venue, whose Victorian brickwork and damp smell creates an instant spooky sense of adventure, proves of great use to O’Brien, enhancing the many hair-raising moments that ensue.

O’Brien has been performing in bands in Ireland since his early teens, and he is as fully at ease when accompanied by his four musician friends as he is armed with just his acoustic guitar – and a dose of genuine humour makes him instantly likeable. But although his songs all boast the lyrical talent of a poet, sung with the cracked sensitivity of Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, it’s when he makes use of the band for his intricate arrangements, that he transforms what could just be delicate ballads, so ubiquitous among young singer songwriters, into haunting pieces of unsettling quality that set him apart and into the mind of the listener.

The cascading piano and tambourine opening of the unsettling I Saw the Dead slides into ghostly howls and erratic drum beats, but all the while keeping the narrative and melodic thread in his darkest, most haunting moment. Impassioned delivery comes naturally to O’Brien but in Pieces, it’s on another level, as he howls his pain, which echoes through the tunnel.

Another highlight is the new single Ship of Promises, a track whose itchy drum beat recalls their Domino label mates and fellow Mercury nominees Wild Beasts, and the expansive indie rock sound of British Sea Power. O’Brien makes use of the vocals of his bandmates to simulate the chugging of a steamboat, with the bursts of dissonant harmonies vocals as the foghorns. This is a talent that deserves the ovation that he receives tonight and in the future.