REVIEW: Villagers – Mandela Hall, Belfast

villagersThe Villagers Darling Arithmetic tour finally arrived in Belfast last night, bringing rearranged stripped back classics from previous albums, and haunting tracks from their latest.

“I was going to play all these all myself” Ciaran Lavery laughed as he swept a hand across the instrument strewn stage; harp, guitars, drums, keyboards, double bass and Mellotron.

Lavery was the support for Villagers, a role he was relishing. The guitar-tuning-patter of the seasoned singer/ songwriter was flowing between songs that dexterously touched nerves and balmed the night.

It seems the audience knew his stuff, knew his dry banter. When he started playing “Left for America”, the room was hushed again. Soaking it up like a sponge.

And that hush continued as Lavery stared out into the distance, tapped his side once or twice with his hand, and then started singing his final song. His voice was bare and unaccompanied. “I’ll sleep alone tonight, like I did as a child.” His wind-strewn shore of a voice held its’ palm over the top of our heads, held us in his direction. “Once you let the bad in, you cannot close the door” he kept telling us, and there wasn’t one person in that hall that didn’t hear him, over there, alone on that stage.

“You’re all looking very civilised” quipped Conor O’Brien as he settled into his guitar, and his band established themselves on stage. The first song “Darling Arithmetic” followed moments later. Mali Llywelyn’s harp was bouncing off the light voiced sadness of the song like a spark.

The keyboards followed on from the end of the song with what sounded like one long note, into “Set the Tigers Free.” Drummer Gwion Llewelyn was sharing high harmonies with O’Brien, giving the song a 70s feel. Mali had turned her attention from the harp to harmonies and Mellotron. In an interview last month, O’Brien had told me that the version of this song that he had written for the tour “sounds like Crosby Stills & Nash, and it makes the lyrics have a very different meaning.”

As the night progressed I noticed this sense of change with other rearranged songs from previous albums. The addition of flugelhorn, played by Gwion, made the mix more solid, made it warmer; it added an air of down to earth brass. The new arrangement of “That Day” made it beautiful; it was fields apart from the stark herald of a song it is on album Becoming a Jackal. The harp and keys made it otherworldly while Danny Snow spent the final journey of the song bent over his double bass, eyes closed, seemingly listening to its large wooden frame, waiting for it to whisper when he’s to play the next note.

The concert took place on 25th May, three days after the success of the referendum on same sex marriage in Ireland. “I’m particularly happy this week” was answered with loud claps and cheers as he beamed on the stage.

O’BrienThis next song is about homophobia”
Audience “Booooooooooo”
O’Brien “Did you just say ‘down with that sort of thing’?”
Audience “Careful Now!”

He ignored us anyway and the band played “Hot Scary Summer”. The sweet melody of Cormac Curran’s keys was noticeable, as a Steely Dan/Hall & Oats feel 70s summer feel washed over the song.

The new album Darling Arithmetic though was the core of night. I wasn’t expecting to hear the beauty “Dawning on Me” so early in the evening. The hall was pin drop silent. We were able to wrap ourselves up in it, no sense of hurry, swallow it whole, as the drum brushes swept in the beat and O’Brien’s voice played that trick. The one that makes you think it is delicate and can’t hold much weight.

“The Waves” from {Awayland} drew attention once again to O’Brien’s skilful guitar. As he played, his pristine voice was unfatigued. After a couple of numbers from Becoming a Jackal by O’Brien alone on the stage (including an achingly beautiful version of “Pieces”), they ended on “Courage” from Darling Arithmetic. “See you at the bar” he grinned before leaving the stage waving, looking back at the audience. I think he enjoyed it too. Cara Gibney, GiggingNI.com

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