Villagers at Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, 12 July 2019
There’s a sold-out crowd patiently waiting when Conor O’Brien, the man behind Villagers, takes to the stage of the Iveagh Gardens. However, anyone expecting just a man and a guitar is set to get more than they bargained for this evening, as a full band swiftly breaks into Again and Sweet Saviour, against a vibrant backdrop of colourful visuals and graphics.
Villagers’ most recent album, ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim’, marked a new chapter for O’Brien. After the confessional, intimate ‘Darling Arithmetic’ in 2015, his newer material unveiled a more mature artist who’s not afraid to experiment and have some fun, adding electronic, R&B and jazz inflections into his indie-folk oeuvre. This shift is reflected in the band setup tonight, with guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and synthesiser joined by brass quartet, bringing tracks from the new album to life, and giving a fuller, more jubilant and dramatic sound to older classics like Becoming a Jackal and The Waves.
There’s little chat between songs, with the focus placed firmly on the music, but O’Brien does recall the last time Villagers played Iveagh Gardens, opening for Josh Ritter back in 2010. He jokes about how he had “too many jazz cigarettes” and his set list blew away. But a lot has changed since then. O’Brien now commands this large stage of musicians with a cool, laid-back confidence, and has become the only frontman in the country to casually switch from guitar to flugelhorn during performances.
After a short break, O’Brien takes a seat at the keyboard for a solo, stripped-back rendition of Fool. In an evening that’s full of rich musical textures and walls of sound, this is a reminder of what makes Villagers special. O’Brien’s voice – pure, familiar and heartbreaking – shines in an intimate moment, capturing the audience’s attention and letting them in on a feeling.
But it’s not long before the band returns to the stage and kicks the gig up to the next level, starting with a big brassy cover of Elvis’ Wonder of You, which is instantly recognisable to fans of Big Little Lies. Some of the more melancholic songs from the back catalogue, such as Hot Scary Summer and Courage, are given a new lease of life with the richer instrumental exuberance, while shimmering new track Summer’s Song warms up the atmosphere on a cool July evening.
O’Brien teases the awaiting crowd with echoes of Nothing Arrived, and then launches into the night’s final anthem. The leafy surrounds of the Iveagh Gardens are filled with the sound of an entire audience trying to hold the line “I guess I was busy” for as long as possible, before the band erupts into one last jazzy jam session, wrapping up an enormously fun gig on a high note. This may be a very different Villagers to the one that played the same venue nine years ago, but that’s certainly not a bad thing.