Villagers, Rough Trade, London, September 25, 2018

East London record store, Rough Trade East, is where it’s at for tonight’s in-store mini-gig + signing by Conor O’Brien AKA Villagers, who is here with his band to promote his latest album, The Art of Pretending to Swim.

The band begins with the song Sweet Saviour and the first single from the album, A Trick of the Light – both songs hammering home what seems to be the keyword explored on this record, ‘faith’.

Conor introduces the third song, Again, as a ‘song about the word ‘God’, before he says, ‘Let’s get started…Party Time.’ The drummer begins the song’s pulsating (party?) beat, but something goes wrong, and the band has to start the song again. This time the infectious song plays out well. The beat is hypnotic, and the lyrics read like meditative mantras: ‘I’ve found again, a space in my heart again, for God again… I let it flow… Alone again… Home…’ – such a beautiful song.

About halfway through the set, Conor checks in with the audience, ‘You all bought my record to get here?’ The audience cheers in confirmation, to which Conor responds: ’That warms my cockles. Sincerely. I can’t say that without sounding sarcastic.’ But he’s fooling no one; he is clearly more sincere and appreciative than acidic.

After six songs, the rest of the band leave the stage, and Conor sings the last song solo: Nothing Arrived, a song from his album from 2013, Awayland, with the haunting lines; ‘I waited for something, but something died, so I waited for Nothing, and Nothing arrived…I guess I was busy (when Nothing arrived)’. Conor delivers a chilling acoustic version where he encourages the audience to harmonize, and the audience obliges.

I’ve seen Villagers’ music described as both ‘neo-folk’ and ‘chamber-pop’. I don’t know what these terms mean, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Conor sings his well-crafted songs with skill and conviction that transcends whatever creative description he may be appointed.

These short mini-gigs that artists do to promote their records are fascinating. They are longer than just playing a song or two on a TV show, and they are shorter than a ‘proper’ gig. But for the artist, I’m guessing it’s a kind of primer, where they can get an indication of whether their record works live or not before touring it ‘properly’. For the audience, it’s a good way of getting a taster of the record they just bought, and hopefully, as is the case with Villagers tonight, leaving them wanting more.

Villagers setlist
1. Sweet Saviour
2. A Trick of the Light
3. Again
4. Hold Me Down
5. Fool
6. Long Time Waiting
7. Nothing Arrived

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