Villagers at HMV Institute Birmingham 14/2/2013 - Live Review

Villagers Live Towards the end of the set, Conor O'Brien - who to all intents and purposes is Villagers - comments that the last time they played this very venue, it was only half-full. Tonight though, you can barely move. People are even stood shoulder to shoulder on the stairs flanking the rammed balcony overlooking the stage. Villagers are moving up in the world. Villagers have toured with Neil Young, Tracy Chapman, Elbow, Bell X1, Grizzly Bear and Tindersticks. Is there an official term for the point at which a band graduates from opening-act to beloved headliner - capable of selling-out small-to-mid size venues across the country and encouraging people to travel to Birmingham from as far afield as Derby to see them? For me at least, Villagers have certainly breached said point, but special guests Stealing Sheep haven't. That said, give it a year and you might find it quaint that such giants should ever have opened for anyone. Stealing Sheep are an all-female three-piece who are singularly strengthening intercity relations between Liverpool and Lichfield. The mark of a good support act for me is that I'm moved to buy their CD during the interval. But as it wouldn't be enough to say that Stealing Sheep achieved this impressive feat, let's just say that they've infused the beguiling Mellow Candle sound with some invigorating post-punk grittiness. Their guitarist (I'm afraid I don't know her name) has struck upon a style which sees her constantly palming the whammy bar as she plays her clean, reverb-drenched licks. It results in an expansive noirish desert tone that, whilst ostensibly at-odds with their folk harmonies, driving percussion and analogue electronics; gels beautifully to create a sound that's utterly captivating. Stealing Sheep are going on to support Alt-J across Europe before stepping-up to deliver the hottest opening-act in town €“ warming the crowd before The Postal Service take to the stage on their comeback tour. Take note of their name: Stealing Sheep will be back; and I just might travel as far as Birmingham to see them again. http://youtu.be/xLuFvVnBVwk As someone who even keeps careful tabs on the setlists of the bands I dislike (everyone needs a hobby), I know that Villagers are a band who like to keep things fresh each night. Every show has a different setlist. During their Birmingham show, they approached their material in the second most obvious way. Most bands like to kick off their shows with the sort of songs that make people drop their pints, jaws and trousers and immediately pay attention. Villagers, though, have evidently learned that the easiest way to win the focus of a crowd is not through playing louder, but through playing quieter. To that end, their show progresses like a steadily increasing curve of dynamics. It begins with just Conor and an incredibly stripped down rendition of That Day €“ sung in a different key to make full use of the range of his voice and his acoustic guitar. Then bit-by-bit; member-by-member; the amount of musicians and the fullness of the sound is gradually increased until, before you know it, you're watching a band. First we get a piano player for In A Newfound Land You're Free. Then we get a piano player plus auxiliary guitarist undertaking vocal harmony duties for a spectral My Lighthouse. Things become a little more expansive for a gorgeous rendition of debut single On A Sunlit Stage; but it's not until {Awayland} highlight Grateful Song that we're finally treated to the full Villagers sound. When the guitar kicks in during the chorus, it's overwhelming in contrast to all that came before. But by then, the plan's worked: It doesn't feel as though a single person in the room is gracing the stage with anything less than their complete and undivided attention. The rapt silence during the quiet moments only goes to confirm this suspicion. The full band remains onstage for the remainder of the evening. Whilst the music occasionally indulges in an overpowering concerto with such songs as The Bells, The Waves and an absolutely stunning Earthly Pleasures, the majority of the set is dominated by such beautifully arranged understated mini-masterpieces as The Meaning Of The Ritual, Home and Nothing Arrived. Conor O'Brien is a brilliant lyricist who sings in such a curiously clipped enunciated manner that you feel as though he wants you to hear every single word. Tonight he's obviously suffering with some kind of cold - and he admits to being more than a little inebriated - but still. The power of his words and the incredible range of his voice is by no means diminished. It's one thing that he can memorise the extent of the complex lyrics of up to 20 songs without the need of any notebooks or cheat-sheets; but to then sing them with such variously chilling and affecting passion? That's what true artists are made of. And has he skulks around the stage, apparently one with the ¾ size acoustic guitar that he's never without at any point throughout the evening - forcing us to bask and wallow in the eerie, mysterious and often sinister world conjured by his dark lyrics €“ I can't help but feel to be in the company of an iconic songwriter in the making. http://youtu.be/hg0UsO5SFb8 His songwriting chops have already been recognised. They encore with the Ivor Novello-winning Becoming A Jackal; but it's the closing Ship Of Promises that impresses me the most. Sounding like a spooky ghost train crossed with a bombastic Bond theme as interpreted by Leonard Cohen; it ends with such violent attacks of volume that you really do wonder why anybody should even suggest that guitar music's dead or dying. View the following statement as journalistic hyperbole if you must, but it really does feel that the future of music itself is in safe hands so long as bands like Villagers are around. At the very least, so long as they're writing and releasing music, there'll always be timeless, slightly creepy yet undeniably powerful gothic folk brilliance within our grasp.
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