Villagers, Scala, London
Friday 08 October 2010
This year's Mercury Prize nominee and singer-songwriter Conor J O'Brien is an expert storyteller. From the minute he appears on stage, the packed Scala crowd are hushed in charmed fascination and stand rigidly, as though they daren't move in case they break their trance.
When with his four-piece band, O'Brien goes by the name of Villagers, and though he released his first EP only two years ago, he's already one of Ireland's most promising stars. Throughout the gig, everyday accounts become ethereal fables when wrapped in the 27-year-old Dubliner's (Dun Laoghaire to be exact) inspired lyrics and haunting melodies.
"Twenty Seven Strangers" offers mesmerising folk riffs and rhythms, conjuring images of the song's bored passenger kicking their shoes into the pavement as they wait for the broken-down bus. It is a rare thing to experience a performance that brings such intense visual imagery to the contents of an already vivid record.
The dream continues as O'Brien strips the philosophical "To Be Counted Among Men" down to its powerfully bare vocals and strings, before reinforcing the darker elements of his creations with bitter tales of selfish love in "The Meaning of the Ritual", and later, taking to the keys for the spine-chilling "I Saw the Dead". The band eventually joins O'Brien, launching into "Home" and "Becoming a Jackal". There's only a handful of people who don't fall into the daze.
If there is one small drawback, it's that O'Brien masters his passion with too much practised perfection for songs like the howling "Pieces". He finally begins to let go by the encore for new offering, "Memoirs" (he brings the lyrics on stage in case he forgets) and "Cecilia & Her Selfhood", when his tired voice begins to waver with emotion. A handful of people have already pushed their way out of venue. Their mistake – catching the last train home isn't worth missing this beauty.
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