Villagers/Holly Macve @ Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Posted by vibrations on 18-02-16

Holly Macve has taken to the stage by the time I’ve walked into the chit-chatter and slowly gathering crowd at The Brudenell. With a very noticeable shy nature, it’s difficult to hear her small voice as she talks between songs, however her timidness soon turns into Joni Mitchell-esque vocal lines and impressive guitar and piano skills, and she manages to woo us over before scuttling away.  

An eager silence eventually settles as Conor O’Brien and his Villagers ensemble step up. With enticing chords, hooks and poetic wit in O’Brien’s lyricism, there’s really not a lot that can go wrong here. The songs are mapped out with such delicate precision that it’s hard to find fault. Truly, and I’m not just saying this: every tune is a winner. From the hypnotic beauty of the flugelhorn, first introduced in ‘So Naïve’, to the light up-beatness of ‘Everything I Am’, Conor & Co. have us from the outset and there’s not one moment they let us go.  

O’Brien - a curious, child-like figure - carries an otherworldly presence as a performer, a mysticism that’s hard to define. The dark and vivid imagery he conjures through his lyrics swiftly sucks us into his deep and fiery world. Here our emotions are shifted without warning, from the sadness of ‘Dawning On Me’, to the piano driven, post-apocalyptic nightmare of ‘I Saw the Dead’, through to the hopeful ‘My Lighthouse’. He takes us full circle, and it’s the delivery that makes it: the dynamic shifts, the constant wide-eye contact, the moving in and out of the way of the microphone, his voice fading backwards and forth seamlessly, holding notes for longer than you could even think them. During ‘Soul Serene’ he abandons the mic completely, stepping aside and singing to the room as the band go down with him. He presents his emotions with such confidence and sincerity that if you were to close your eyes it could just as easily be a personal serenade!

The band hold their ground just fine, too. The exposed arrangements allow for each sound to slot in perfectly: the soft brushes of drummer, the bang-on notes of the double bass, and the phenomenal multitasking of the harpist, who with her spare hand also provides atmospheric keys and tight-nit vocal harmonies (“We’re a member down so Mali is taking over this corner!”). Her performance is a show in itself, and together the band provide a beautiful backdrop for O’Brien to project over.

There’s really nowhere to hide with such a minimal setup, and each instrument has its own space that can either be honed in on, or observed from afar as part of a finished painting. Because that’s what these songs are, visual works of art that O’Brien’s able to re-arrange and redefine at will. Older songs are re-visited; ‘Memoir’, written originally for Charlotte Gainsbourg many moons ago, now lends itself as the opener, whilst ‘The Pact’ has a whole new feel, transformed into a slow piano-led number focussing largely on the vocal harmonies.

Before we have a chance to grow tired of this relaxed pace, they step it up for ‘Little Bigot’ and for the next three numbers bring out the big guns! Chaos ensues, the drummer swaps to sticks, O’Brien sings of homophobia and LGBT rights in Russia (‘Occupy Your Mind’), swirling his head as things heat up, a side of Villagers that’s refreshing to see.  

It’s not long until things are bought way down again, however and after a twenty-track slammer the night closes as magically as it begun: an intimate performance of ‘Courage’ as the whole room sings along (“My Dolly Parton moment”, O’Brien sniggers). There’s joy in the air, passion in his eyes, and a thrill in our singing voices!

Ollie Deans

On the Vibrations stereo...