Friday 19th October in Manchester was a night of opportunity and a plethora of choices for live music – Beach House were smashing it at the Albert Hall, Toots & The Maytals were bringing joy to the Academy audience, Idles were hitting it hard at The Ritz and U2 were also around… But it was over at Gorilla where we were camped, awaiting the return of Conor O’Brien’s Villagers to the capital of the North.
In support of their sensational new record The Art Of Pretending To Swim, Villagers arrived on stage bright and early, following a beautiful set from rising star Billie Marten, and ahead of a drum and bass clubnight which, based on the queue of teenagers outside, we were happy to miss!
Frontman O’Brien led the charge, with a cheeky wink and a burst of confidence that has sometimes been lacking in previous performances. It was clear that he has become more at ease with being on stage, with a fantastic backing band and a collection of increasingly powerful and experimental tracks, albeit still laced with intricately plucked acoustic guitar and delicate vocals.
The band’s performance was heavy with new tracks from the latest record, kicking off with the poetic and emotional Sweet Saviour, followed by the intriguing and highly-catchy album-opener, Again. In addition, one of the most beautiful tracks from the record, Love Came With All That It Brings, was a particularly stunning moment, as O’Brien’s vocals cracked with fragility through his tale of a woman losing all hope with the overwhelming power of love. It was a sensational performance which was echoed in following tracks Hot Scary Summer – a triumphant number from previous studio record Darling Arithmetic, and recent single Trick Of The Light.
All of the new tracks were met with thunderous applause, but, inevitably, it was past hits that received the warmest of receptions, including the gorgeous Becoming A Jackal and Memoir – taken from 2016’s collection of re-recorded tracks, Where Have You Been All My Life?
The encore soon followed, which nobody was expecting (wink wink), and having endured calls and requests from the crowd throughout the evening for Courage – clearly a fan favourite from Darling Arithmetic – O’Brien finally gave in, leading to a quite stunning performance. Raw, personal and at time heartbreaking, it really is a glorious piece of work that can resonate with those with even the thickest of skins.
The final track was, however, our personal standout. Nothing Arrived has long been a TFFT favourite, but this version was something else altogether. Throughout the night, O’Brien’s band was completely flawless – from the keys, to the brilliant drums, to bass from long-standing member Danny Snow and some gorgeous brass thrown in as well. But with this version of Nothing Arrived, it was, until a glorious crescendo at the very end, stripped completely bare. Conor O’Brien’s vocals floated across a hushed audience, with every word appreciated and ringing true. It was utterly sublime.
Villagers return to Manchester next year, to play the cathedral. If this performance was anything to go by, that is set to be a truly religious experience. We cannot wait!