Villagers With Support From We Were Evergreen

by Matt Hacke

I’d been looking forward to the arrival of the critically acclaimed Villagers at the Exeter Phoenix for some time. It’s not often you get an act who have been nominated for the Mercury Prize in Exeter, and since writing the preview of this gig, I’d been listening to the Irish 5-piece frequently. Needless to say, my anticipation was justified. Villagers were excellent and their support act, We Were Evergreen, proved to be a gem of a band I had not yet come across. In a weekend that would see Editors take to the stage at the Exeter Great Hall on Sunday, this night at the Phoenix made a strong case to be one of the live music highlights of the Autumn.

The support act, We Were Evergreen were impressive. They were a bit like a hybrid of The xx, Everything Everything and Friendly Fires and this unique sound proved to be extremely enjoyable. The Parisian 3-piece switched instruments frequently, which gave each song a refreshingly different timbre from its predecessor. I especially enjoyed the move from xylophone to a more Eurodance-esque synth sound as the set progressed. My highlights included some excellent use of a loop-pedal with beatboxing that would put Ed Sheeran circa You Need Me, I Don’t Need You to shame, and the percussion-led finale which proved to be the most danceable point in the night.

Unfortunately, most of the tracks they played are from a scheduled debut album, so you won’t be able to find them online. However I recommend checking out their single Leeway, which I’ve been listening to on repeat whilst writing this review. You can also read an interview> I got with their lead singer Michael Liot after their strong performance.

Promptly and without bombast, Villagers arrived on stage. The understated opener, My Lighthouse was excellently performed, with pitch-perfect harmonies fading in and out below Conor O’Brien’s lead. At one point, the backing vocals cut completely, leaving O’Brien’s voice floating unsupported over the sparse arrangement. A truly beautiful moment. By the second track – Set the Tigers Free, you could tell just how musically able Villagers are. The performance was almost flawless, with continuously effective and confident instrumentation. Overall, I was impressed by the consistently perfect translation of the band’s recorded sound to the stage.

I appreciated the visual element to the set as well. The lighting was by no means technically incredible, but it’s implementation contributed heavily to the atmosphere of the performance. One notable example was the climax of The Bell, in which an anguished O’Brien took to the drum, screaming the refrain repeatedly, as the light turned to a hellish yellow. The synthesis of atmospheric visual components with the dramatic nature of the repertoire proved to be extremely potent.

O’Brien is not the most vocal of front men in establishing a rapport with the audience, indeed, conversation with the crowd was sporadic at best. Yet the story-telling of his performance was what made O’Brien such an effective lead. The narratives of tracks such as 27 Strangers were spun with delicacy, with the crystal clear lyrics etching themselves into my memory. It was this infiltratory quality that made one of Villagers’ new tracks - an urgent synth-led piece with the refrain “I just want to occupy your mind” - so unnerving. Throughout, O’Brien’s diction was perfect, and it was his vocal delivery that made him so captivating. The audience stood in a silence for the majority of the set, transfixed by his performance; we were hanging on his every word. After the band’s parting track, a sublime new piece entitled Hot, Scary Summer, in which O’Brien sings poignantly of “pretty young homophobes”, I left the auditorium slightly dazed. I had been pulled away from the band’s excellent, and almost hypnotic story-telling.