As venues go for first shows in Wales, I doubt Villagers could have wished for anything better than the converted church that is The Gate Arts Centre in Roath – it is a fantastic, intimate venue that opens itself to the performer and allows the crowd to feel as though they are within touching distance. To see that this was Villagers’ first headline show in Wales was in itself quite a surprise, given that they are quite a popular group among those who pay attention to the contemporary folk music scene – there was however no surprise that it sold out, and that a capacity crowd of about 300 people turned up expectantly for the show.
To walk into the room and see a sea of heads lining the pews of the former church was quite a scene, but I do feel like I owe the supporting artist, Luke Sital-Singh, an apology as I missed the first few of his songs and arrived in the middle of a sombre number played out on his acoustic guitar. Those who don’t know of Sital-Singh, but who enjoy the sadder sounds of singer-songwriter music, I urge you to look him up; he has an incredible voice and demonstrated his musicianship by nonchalantly switching from acoustic to electric to piano, and then back to acoustic, each time showing off a different quality of his songwriting. Having released his debut album last year, he is very much a new and emerging talent in the British music scene and one that I predict we will be hearing about in the future.
In the build up to the gig, I had wondered whether we would get a full band or just Conor O’Brien and his guitar (quite honestly, either would have been as good as the other) given the small size of the venue, but full band it was. Accompanied by a number of talented musicians, they began their set which saw the intertwining of songs from Villagers’ latest release, Darling Arithmetic, and some of the better known fan favourites.
Opening the set was the title track from their third and most recent release, and the fragility in O’Brien’s voice was something to behold as he captivated the crowd – this was a benchmark for the evening, and a very high one at that.
I have never personally been a fan of sitting down at gigs, but on this occasion I would say it suited the atmosphere of the music and the venue, and it did lend itself to the crowd’s ability to focus on the performance of both Luke Sital-Singh and Villagers in their respective turns.
Interesting to see was the alternative versions that O’Brien had prepared for their more popular songs, such as Becoming A Jackal, That Day and the evergreen Nothing Arrived; they were virtually unrecognisable and yet they lost none of their potency or appeal as a result. If anything, it offered the crowd a new perspective on these songs that had become familiar friends and is something that, when the time calls for it, I would like to see more bands do.
Bringing the set to a close was the double header of Courage, one of my favourites from their new album, and Becoming A Jackal; the former exemplified why I hold this group in such high esteem when it comes to seeing them perform. Having first seen them live in Green Man of 2013, they blew me away by the energy that they brought in their performance of songs which, when heard from the record might not show any signs of such life. The same was true in this case, as they tore up the song and ended it with a huge crescendo of culminating instrumentals before quietly fading out the vocals of O’Brien.
Anyone who ever has the opportunity to see this group play live should seize it because they will put on a genuinely satisfying live performance that will hold your attention throughout. Moreover, they are sincere in what they do and that gave me, at the very least, a pure enjoyment as I watched them – something that was echoed by the crowd as they gave the group a deserved standing ovation to the seeming surprise of the members of the group.