Villagers @ The Oxford O2 (08.02.16)

Villagers, The Oxford O2 Academy

It’s an open campfire at O’Brien’s tonight. Soggy February skies muffle Oxford’s O2 Academy, but inside Villagers and their merry men are blazing through an Irish folktale. “Do you really wanna know about these lines on my face? Well…”

Canadian experimental folk singer Aidan Knight introduced the evening’s story with an acoustic set steeped in melancholy. He perched cross-legged just like he was enjoying a lazy afternoon on a park bench. Thoughtful, well-crafted, but at times a little bland, Knight’s sound resembled a subdued Jack Johnson. It was more his endearingly modest persona that sold the otherwise lackluster set. Charming with laid-back conversation, the O2 warmed to him with ease, and he gave way graciously to the main event with the heart-wrenching track ‘Margaret Downe’.

Villagers are a remarkably understated band. The pull of their small but solid reputation filtered out the celeb seekers that populate many larger gigs, instead pulling in a crowd of fully committed followers. They greeted the band like old friends: no need to say much, we get it.

O’Brien’s song writing exemplifies his meticulous musical approach. Often playing on mid-sentence openings and unresolved harmonies, he relates chapters that, in a gig setting, combine into a grand, mythical story. Sometimes stormy, sometimes sunny, Villagers’s melodic world meandered through the rippling sunrise of ‘Dawning on Me’, to the haunted mountain strength of ‘Occupy Your Mind’. Amidst these meandering landscapes however, the thoughtful humbleness of O’Brien’s lyrics keeps the music grounded and approachably simple.

The hook of Villagers is their unfaltering musicianship. Here is technical precision, eagle-eyed alertness and smart, professional interaction. Last night combined superbly ambidextrous kit playing, trumpet and angelic harp with a double bass anchor and chalk blended vocal harmonies. O’Brien’s distinctive voice gave additional colour with controlled quivers and ethereal reverb. However, whilst a spectacle in itself, this well-drilled routine sacrificed the spontaneity of live performance. In the gig’s later stages, a lyrical stutter from O’Brien left him floundering, and forced into an awkward blasé ending to ‘Hot Scary Summer’.

Glitches aside, Villagers have a deep-seated trust in their music, and tonight it was felt on both sides of the stage. Most appreciated was the dreamy 2010 track ‘Twenty Seven Strangers’. For those new to this gorgeous band, it’s a good place to start. Never has a bus journey been told so enchantingly. Are we there yet? Tell me we’re not.

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