Villagers @ Manchester Cathedral, 1 Mar
Celebrating the success of 2018's The Art of Pretending to Swim, Villagers play a stunning show to a sold-out Manchester Cathedral
'You give me strength to carry on'. Irishman Conor O'Brien is stood, without his guitar, singing The Wonder of You to a sold-out Manchester Cathedral. It's a superb and surreal moment atop a sublime and strange journey to the top table for the multiple Ivor Novello award-winning songwriter and his fans.
Celebrating the success of 2018's The Art of Pretending to Swim, Villagers fourth full-length studio album for Domino Records, the gig is part of a small tour playing to the biggest venues they've headlined yet (the night before saw the band play to a sold-out Roundhouse in London). Does this step-up mean a change in sound or aesthetic? Absolutely not... Villagers remain a stubborn and startling live proposition. Just four songs in and the delicately finger-picked My Lighthouse is standing its hushed ground, in cavernous surroundings, to a capacity Friday night drinking crowd. That you can hear a pin drop says it all about the charisma O'Brien has developed over the years.
He stalks the stage with all the cerebral charm of a young Michael Stipe, batters his acoustic guitar with all the dangerous dexterity of Elvis Costello and spits vowels like protest-era Bob Dylan. Big bombs to throw? Perhaps, but there's not many artists out there right now who continue to sell records and shift tickets while constantly refining and redefining their work. Villagers make light work of their reverential back catalogue. The six-piece, augmented by a horn section for these gigs, hit all the recognisable sweet spots O'Brien's best work has become known for (a melodic keyboard riff here, a spiky acoustic guitar hook there), but there's something else happening here, too, as the band and audience ride the same wavelength, even on such big reworkings as The Waves or stunning set-closer, Nothing Arrived.
The Dylan comparison may be a daft one, but the deft way Villagers shapeshift songs, alter arrangements and move melodies really is fearless. Two keyboards create washes of reverb and soundscape that sit just the right side of The War on Drugs at their most bombastic, while the stuttering rhythms of a drummer and percussion player swim the same mainstream as Bon Iver does in 2019. They're the comparisons… the rest? There ain't nobody who can sing like O'Brien, whose staggering falsetto is perfectly suited to such a heavenly venue.
The band pull back to basics for big hitters Hot Scary Summer and Courage – all Purple Rain-esque major chords and gestures – and the crowd are sent home happy with the Elvis cover and a "we love you" from the Irishman. The feeling becomes more mutual with every gig Villagers play.