Villagers, Cate Le Bon

Tim Miller 05/10/2010

London's Scala boasts a colourful history as both a cinema and live venue. Now one of the capital's most coveted locations, its vaguely steeping stalls and balconies and close standing area seem to bear down on the stage almost as intently as the spotlights above.

They fall first on Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon and her three compadres, who flit around the cramped stage, swapping locations and instruments like good friends exchanging playing cards. Cate Le Bon initially caught the eye as vocalist on Neon Neon's debut single, 'I Lust You', resulting in her year-long tour with the band. Now forging her solo path, Scala sees her deliver a quaint performance, in which Cate's syrupy but dextrous tones float and soar over her mix of rough-edged guitars and woozy organs, just about winning over a rather cooler-than-thou audience with her bursts of heady folk: warm applause sends the Welsh songwriter on her way.

The real spotlight tonight, though, is all on one man, Conor O'Brien. The face behind the misleading Villagers moniker (for argument's sake, it is just him), his live renditions of the delicately arranged tracks from debut album Becoming A Jackal have garnered astounded review after astounded review since it was released in May this year. While The XX deservedly picked up the Mercury Music prize last month, much of the talk after the night centred on O'Brien's performance, and this reviewer is of the opinion that had said music prize been awarded just a few weeks later, the Irishman might well have walked away with the gong itself.

For the Villagers cult is quickly developing into something much bigger on its own. And yet, the man himself is unassuming, an anti-hero, shy and quiet. He is 27 but looks a decade younger, especially caught in the Scala's headlights; his hair is Amish-looking, his eyes wide, and he carries the air of a kid who is completely bewildered by the idea of fitting into some sort of trend. His statements, instead, come from his soul.

His lonely, bewitching performances are not a trick, however. The weighty emotion that repeatedly leaves audiences spellbound is genuine, yet the impression O'Brien gives is of someone whose deepest secrets and fears come tumbling out almost by accident. You get the sense that, were Conor O'Brien asked to accept an award for his music (as he most likely will have to in the future), he would mumble, falter, blush and slope off stage with a disarming, apologetic grin. Where this soul-baring confidence comes from, it seems, is when he can shield himself behind his guitar.

The instrument - which is oddly-sized, an unusual reddish brown and gorgeous sounding, more like a cello on its side - is becoming a trademark of O'Brien's: check out his videos on MySpace, where he seems to carry it protectively everywhere. It's as though when he swings his trusty guitar to his front, the shyness is gone, replaced by an urgent fire that can only be quenched by dispensing dark and fantastic tales through his truly astonishing voice.

Pitch-perfect throughout the night, O'Brien is capable of emitting everything from a plaintive mew to a fierce bark, encapsulated as he signs off 'That Day' with a literal, ”I'm spitting words/but there's no meaning”. The earnest pangs in his vocals score the anguish that hides among the lyrics, which are some of the best to come out of any songwriter this year.

This is acutely demonstrated during the first few songs of the Villagers set, as Conor O'Brien takes to the stage by himself. Opening with new track 'New Found Land', an uneasy air falls over the crowd. It's an eerie mixture of fascination and expectancy; with his reputation by now preceding him, the watching eyes are quite willing to hang on to O'Brien's every word. After the chilling “Oooooh”s of 'Twenty Seven Strangers' float up to the rafters through an air thick with the rapt attention of the thousand or so faces, he is joined onstage by a keys player, who adds subtle layers to 'To Be Counted Amongst Men' and the heart-stopping 'The Meaning of The Ritual'. Here, Conor O'Brien's gift for vivid imagery revels in the tragic, selfish, regretful lyric, rising from his throat as though unleashed, and growing in fervour until the agonisingly curt ending. When he finishes, there is a pause, then raucous applause, more like the applause at the end of a West End show: sudden and unanimous, sweeping the venue in wild appreciation.

In truth, this happens each time every song finishes.

Following the revelatory rendition of '...Ritual', the three remaining members of Villagers' touring band enter, launching immediately into a strong, poppier version of 'Home'. As the five players on stage recreate the album's ethereal title track, it also becomes clear just how extraordinarily talented a songwriter Conor O'Brien is. Songs like 'That Day' and 'The Pact (I'll Be Your Fever)' bear the hallmarks of timeless songwriting a la Bowie and Simon & Garfunkel respectively. On his beloved guitar, too, the Villagers chief shows incredibly creative prowess, darting up and down the neck for chord shapes and progressions that other esteemed singer/songwriters wouldn't even recognise.

He puts it down just once, to double up on keyboard duties for a spine-tingling version of album opener 'I Saw the Dead', the song's sinister tale gaining in intensity as the musicians let loose for a howling climax. Earlier on, 'Pieces' gets a similar makeover, a crashing outro burning into the ears of onlookers, this time O'Brien literally howling as he does on record. The one minor disappointment of the night is that 'Ship of Promises', tonight's final song and Villagers' now most prominent single, doesn't get the same treatment.

Instead, the 'wow' factor is saved for midway through the three-song encore. On his own again under the lights, Conor O'Brien weaves the gripping tale of 'Cecilia and her Selfhood', each poignant chord change punctuating the story's development. At the 'reveal' as the last verse begins, there is a strange ripple of realisation among the crowd, the same reaction a film produces in an audience as they piece together the plot twists in the final moments to understand everything that has gone before it. It's a reaction that takes 90 minutes to evoke on the big screen, and tonight, in this historic former cinema, Conor O'Brien has achieved it in four, with just his voice, his six-strings and some electrifying lyrics. It's a remarkable demonstration of his skill as a songwriter and his mastery as a storyteller, and 'Cecilia' is the inestimable pinnacle of what's been a rich evening of peaks.

Closing the encore with 2009's debut single 'On a Sunlit Stage', Conor O'Brien and his band bow to the audience, arms around each other as the adulation rains down from all quarters of the Scala. They leave the stage together, but the evening has been all about one man. Each night, he unburdens these tales, pouring heart and soul into his performances, creating a shared, connected experience that is like being privy to something deeply and troublingly personal. What is the meaning of Conor O'Brien's ritual?

“Before you take this song as truth
You should wonder what I'm taking from you
How I benefit from you being here
Lending me your ears
While I'm selling you my fears”

Villagers, 2010

It's a price worth paying.