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Villagers – Nottingham Rescue Rooms (October 17, 2018)

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Villagers – Nottingham Rescue Rooms (October 17, 2018)

Posted on 21 October 2018 by John Haylock

When you do a  search on Google for Villagers more often than not those hunky chunky purveyors of ultra camp seventies disco The Village People come back at you singing YMCA. As much as I love disco classics I think I’ll stick with our Irish friends for the time being, thank you.

Since Villagers launched ten years ago, they have very quietly, very gently, rocked our world. Leader Conor O’Brien’s  melodic introspections and observations have healed and shone light into our collective hearts.

Whilst all around is going to Brexit in a handcart they are a little oasis of sparkling tunes and old fashioned musicianship. So with a new album to promote (The Fine art of Pretending to Swim),  their fifth if my calculations are correct, a tour is in order.

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The new Villagers album is an absolute joy that is chock full of many  slyly insidious tunes. I’m assured the young kids on the street today describe this as ear worms. A vulgar unpleasant phrase. I prefer to use the phrase angel cake whispers instead.

So eyes down for an evening of angel cake whispering.

Conor is given a hero’s welcome as he buoyantly takes to the stage accompanied by his superbly talented band (tonight’s Haylock award for outstanding individual achievement goes to the drummer James Byrne, a brilliant display).

Diving head first into an evening of classics and playing many of the tracks from the new opus we embark upon on an emotional rollercoaster of aural joy, the new stuff sounds absolutely brilliant, there’s some seriously catchy Villagers songs on display, especially Again, Sweet Saviour and Fool. One of the highlights was a fantastic new composition called Love Came With All That It Brings. A song from the top drawer if ever there was one.

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This was the first night of the current Villagers tour and you might have expected hesitancy or at least some  nervousness but it was flawless. Conor has such a winning way with the between song banter. He won us over easily. Both funny and modest , his demeanour is the polar opposite of most frontmen. His audience loves him for it.

Occupy Your Mind was given a new suit and tie, a wash and a shave and turned into a whizzing speeding thing of beauty. Another new song Long Time Waiting seemed so gorgeously familiar. An effortless reflection on modern living with added trumpets.

Old favourites blend with the new

The final furlong saw the welcome return of two old but genius nevertheless faves, the irrisistable sing along Hot Scary Summer and of course Courage.

These were preceded by one of the most adventurous new songs from the album, Ada,  a song Conor told us was about Ada Lovelace the mother of modern computing  (Charles Babbage being the father, see Analytical Engine for further details) . Unknown to Conor, until someone in the crowd pointed it out to him, there was a Nottingham connection here. Ada was the only legitimate daughter of local lad, romantic poet and total shag monster Lord Byron. Synchronicity or what? That blew him away.

I urge you all to check out the support artist on this tour. She calls herself Billie Martin. Originating from Ripon, she has a stunningly beautiful voice, and plays guitar with a featherlight touch, and with the aid of a solitary drummer. They created a little sensation among the crowd tonight. Very rarely does an audience just shut the fuck up and listen to a support act as intently as I witnessed tonight.

A lovely gesture was witnessed as she had left a hand written note on the merch table. It read simply,  “sorry no merchandise but I’ve baked a cake (lemon drizzle, my favourite) please help yourself”.

Yum and indeed yum.

 

Words by John Haylock, pictures by Arthur Hughes

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Top Five Protest Songs of 2015

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Top Five Protest Songs of 2015

Posted on 27 November 2015 by Joe

From the tragic consequences of US gun laws to the UK’s ongoing debate around inequality and low wages as well as worldwide debate around the plight of refugees fleeing war torn Syria, it’s been another year where political songwriters have had lots of inspiration.

Here we take a look at our five favourite political songs. All can be loosely called protest songs, but also offer more than that, often looking at the real lives of those affected by the political decisions taking place.

Darren Hayman – Down Among the Dead Men

Chants for Socialists is a rare political album from Darren Hayman. As you would expect from the former Hefner frontman it carries none of the bombast of Chumbawumba. Instead he has taken the lyrics from Victorian socialist William Morris, set it to music and given it a modern take with a choir of friends and those living nearby Morris’s former London home.

On this, one of the album’s standout tracks, Hayman successfully conveys a comforting sense of comraderie among the hopelessness of a world of social injustice, all sounding like a mix of The Kinks and a Victorian pub singalong thanks to co-writing duties from frequent Hayman collaborator Robert Rotifer.

Villagers- Little Bigot

A few years it would have been inconceivable that Ireland, with all the atrocities its Catholic society forced on women and gay people would allow same sex marriages. In the year Ireland really came of age Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien penned the album Darling Arithmetic, which is as much about Ireland’s attitude to gay men like himself as it is a wonderful collection of songs about love.

He is keen that this shold be seen as a love album first and a protest album second, but on Little Bigot he rejoices as finally the old way of thinking is cast aside. “So take the blame, little bigot. And throw that hatred on the fire,” he sings.

Belle and Sebastian – Cat with the Cream

Politicians and the banking elite are the smug cats here on Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch’s bitter take on British politics. Written after the Tory led coalition came into power in 2010 it was not released until this year when the Conservatives won an outright victory and looked to lap up even more cream. ‘Tory like a cat with the cream’ sums up many of that party’s politics wonderfully, but Labour and their ‘grubby little red’ MPs and the Lib Dems ‘flapping hopelessly’ also come under fire.

John Howard and the Night Mail – Tip of your Shoe

This is the second mention in this list of protest songs for Robert Rotifer, who in between fronting his own band Rotifer and helping Darren Hayman out, also collaborated this year with 1970s singer songwriter John Howard as part of the Night Mail. Here Rotifer’s lyrics and Howard’s wonderful voice and music take on xenophobia and right wing media commentators, especially ones of the likes of Katie Hopkins, who spout all sorts of vile political rubbish on their “21st century toilet wall” of social media.

Southern Tenant Folk Union – Slaughter in San Francisco


It seems incredulous that the US government still allows gun ownership to go unchecked in yet another year of horrific shootings. The school shootings are particular tragic and provide the sad inspiration for Slaughter in San Francisco, among the best songs on Southern Tenant Folk Union’s album The Chuck Norris Project, which is packed full of protest at a range of issues from bigotry to gun laws.

Here singer Rory Butler provides genuine emotion as he shows the horror of such incidents through the eyes of one of the frightened young victims. It’s one of the year’s most heartbreaking songs that sadly is set to have resonance for years to come until the US legislature finally sees sense on gun crime.

Compiled by Joe Lepper

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Green Man Festival – Glanusk Park, Brecon Beacons (August 20 -23, 2015)

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Green Man Festival – Glanusk Park, Brecon Beacons (August 20 -23, 2015)

Posted on 25 August 2015 by Joe

Heeding the advice of  The Pet Shop Boys we Go West toward beautiful Wales, the land of the chronic vowel syndrome, crap sheep jokes and where drizzle is the default weather setting. To be precise we are off to the Brecon Beacons, where the charming Green Man Festival shelters beneath the green skirted panoramic grandeur of The Black Mountain.

Now celebrating an incredible 13th year, the word is out and this annual freakfest is now one of the must go to festivals on the circuit. As ever, we worry about the weather and the possible consequences of trenchfoot, the withdrawal charges from the onsite cash machines and the possible names for our pub quiz team on the Saturday.

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On previous memorable occasions at this festival I’ve seen grown men weep (well me anyway) at startling performances from the likes of Roy Harper, The Archie Bronson Outfit, Flaming Lips, Teeth of theSsea, Josh T Pearson and numerous others. This year’s line up once again boasts some of the most mouth watering and highly anticipated acts of any current festival doing the rounds in 2015.

Friday

We could go see some groovy French underground movie, or go for a ride on the big wheel, or go see a trio of Manchester students wearing Fugazi t-shirts playing Bonnie Tyler covers on instruments they’ve made themselves out of some lamb shit, three Pringle tubes and a stolen hairdryer in the Far Out tent, but instead we somewhat predictably go to the beer tasting where Pete Brown is giving an illustrated talk on  the flavours of various beers and which particular band suits that drink, it’s just an intellectual excuse for a piss up  in a big tent basically.

Bill Ryder Jones

Bill Ryder Jones

Eventually the sun tentatively pokes it’s head out from behind the clouds to see what all the fuss is about and accompanied by some fine rum we soundtrack our day with ex Coral chap Bill Ryder Jones, who takes us into some dark corners with a set of beguilingly heartfelt songs.

We hardly have time to catch our breath before Villagers mesmerise the crowd with their subtle, captivating musicianship, it’s a lesson in restraint and beauty. The tracks from the new album Darling Arithmetic proving to be every bit as good live as any of their previous offerings.

Over in the Walled Garden a small frail guy turns out to be Tom Robinson, the former post-punk rebel with a brain and possessor of a small back catalogue of singles and albums mainly from the early eighties. More recently he’s the tastefinder general on Radio 6. He and his band played a short greatest hits set, including Martin, Glad to be Gay, the lovely lost classic War Baby and obviously 2 4 6 8 motorway.

Desperately in need of a fix of scrunchy, drugged-up, fucked up British trippyness we  make  an ascent on the slight incline that leads up to the ‘it does what its says on the tin’ Far Out tent.

Villagers

Villagers

Up first a wonky performance from Leeds finest sons Hookworms, but bettered by far by a slightly underwhelming  (to start with anyway) show from Temples, hesitancy soon gave way to collective euphoria as those tracks on their debut album Sun Structures twitched into life and the monster awoke, leaving this journo duly impressed.

Afterwards a leisurely stroll, presumably on a Welsh ley line brought us to the epicentre of some serious rock action. Strand of Oaks, a four piece, two of whom looked like ex-members of Eels and the other two looked like rejects from both Metallica and Creed, but it just proved that you must never judge a band on appearance alone.

To look at them you might think it was going Iron Maiden bound, fortunately not, instead they played a blinder of a set, full of tough, bluesy riffs, and lovely lead guitar but with really honest lyrics about life, the universe and everything. Vocals courtesy of American Timothy Showalter who looks like  the soundman for  Slayer but was tremendously self effacing , polite and almost tearful at the warmth of the crowd’s response. Its difficult to catagorise them, but if you like rock songs that come from the heart and have potency, deal with  realities and with no reference to dragons or crazy chicks, you’ll love them.

Hot chips for supper, then bed. Only to be kept awake until 4 am by the drum and bass (but mostly bass) shenanigans in the next field.

Saturday

Still no rain! But my goodness what a great day for discovering new music. Hooton Tennis Club is by anybody’s standards a crap name, a proper name for a band is Amon Duul 2 or Acid Mothers Temple or One Direction. What were they thinking ? But they more than compensate for their shit name with some seriously wobbly tunes that pitch somewhere Pavement and Teenage Fanclub.

Does anybody here remember Teenage Fanclub’s Everything Flows? Hooton Tennis Club kinda like that vibe but ready to head into the ditchat any moment. Their two great closing numbers Jasper and Always Coming Back To You were top notch.

The Fall's Mark E Smith

The Fall’s Mark E Smith

A minor detour over to the talking shop marquee where The Fall’s Mark E Smith was being interviewed by a Mojo magazine writer. It proved to be both hilarious and sad, at various points he went off on one about God, Johnny Vegas and even a conspiracy about crisps. After 30 minutes of inane questions sent in by Mojo readers he was clearly getting restless and he said let’s have some questions from the audience, but before that happened he just casually got up and walked off. More of him later.

As the day drew to a close there was a flurry of limping and note taking, wherever you went great stuff was happening. On the Mountain Stage Charles Bradley turned in an extraordinary set of soul and funk based fun, coming on like some latter day James  Brown, preaching fire and brimstone and extolling the virtues of ‘Lurve’. It’s not an act I ever expected to see at Greenman, a totally off the wall booking and it was killer.

He had the tightest band since Prince was last in town and did a number called Confusion that sounded like a cross between Purple Haze and Ball of Confusion by The Temptations, it was electrifying. Praise the lord and pass the rum.

Songhoy Blues

Songhoy Blues

The far out tent then scored a hat trick of quality acts. Songhoy Blues play North African blues with an electro undercurrent and made the audience levitate with happiness. 4,000 people bouncing around a red and yellow tent off their tits on pure unadulterated joy is something once seen, never forgotten.

Then came The Fall, with Mark E Smith shambling on like a geriatric Casper from the greatest film ever made ‘Kes’, a disheveled little bloke screaming his head off into two microphones for an hour. In that time not one word is discernible but the tunes were recognisable courtesy of  the ultra tight band he’s got at the moment. Playing mainly stuff from the new album Sub Lingual Tablet, tracks such as Facebook Troll and Off to Venice With The Girls shifted along nicely, we even got White Lightning and best of all Mr Pharmacist.

It is heartening to see nineties shoegazers Slowdive finally get the recognition they deserve. Reforming in 2014 they have since garnered praise and won new fans of their dreamy, swirling miasma of sound and with Rachel Goswell’s pretty vocals to the fore and Neil Halstead’s treated guitars swooshing around your head at 1am, it’s the best thing ever. Catch the Breeze was a standout as was the final number Golden Hair, with its strobe strafing lightshow, which was not unlike a trip into the stargate in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
At 3am we were found in a bar miming along to Ce La Vie by Bewitched. But that’s our secret ok. So shut it.

Sunday

Rain made its long overdue appearance on Sunday morning. It was heavy and prolonged, a bit like my trip to the toilet. But it eventually subsided to merely ‘torrential’ (the rain that is) and by early afternoon the sun was coming out again.

Once again Mr Greenman provided much in the way of musical nourishment, ex Boo Radleys’ Martin Carr was cool but the day belonged to Meic Stevens, this unassuming elderly little guy is something of a Welsh legend. At one point he was rubbishly referred to as the ‘Welsh Bob Dylan’, as he was a highly politicised 1960s folk singer, turned on by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and all those other blues dudes.

Meic Stevens

Meic Stevens

On he came to the stage, now aged 73, looking slightly bemused that anyone in their right mind would ask him to play at Greeman. By the third number I was welling up, under the circumstances his playing  was brilliant and his voice tremendously moving, this despite having treatment for throat cancer recently where the doctors told him that he may never talk again, never mind sing. How wrong they were. He spoke of his times hanging out with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Donovan and even Paul Simon. His set was living history with acoustic knobs on.

You can’t go to Greenman without a visit to Einstein’s Garden, a scientific playground for the inquisitive child, curated by a motley crew of university boffins, students and doctors, who each specialise in turning science into ‘interesting’ .

Matthew E White

Matthew E White

So we popped into The Science in Star Wars  show and how it could provide answers to the Fermi paradox, which is basically the question – where are the aliens?

Thinking Matthew E White would be yet another intense, beardy man straight off the conveyor belt of tortured American artists I was preparing to go see Touch of Evil in the Cinedrome, when he did the best version of Velvet  Underground’s White Light White Heat ever.  Then he got the Deep Throat Choir on stage, all 5,879 of them to do rousing backing.

Last year Public Service Broadcasting played to 300 people in the Walled Garden this year ten times as many came to the Far Out tent to see them as they continue to ride a wave of well deserved popularity. Wigglesworth and co have fleshed out their duo status to ‘band’, and it  works really nicely. They effortlessly weave the old with new, a nice touch was the shitty, home-made Sputnik orbiting satellite that rose unconvincingly during the opening space based toons from their latest offering.

Public Service Broadcasting

Public Service Broadcasting

At this point my notes run out, as does my short term memory. A combination of lamb kebab overload, the lack of Savlon and too many beers with funny names took their toll and I collapsed in a babbling heap in the back of an ethnic carbon-free sandal store. When I woke up  I was back home in bed with my little Noddy and dreaming of Charlotte Church dressed as Big Bill Broozy with a tube of Savlon  and what looks like my brain in a petri dish.We must do this again sometime.

Words by John Haylock, pictures by Arthur Hughes

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Villagers – Glee Club, Nottingham (April 26, 2015)

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Villagers – Glee Club, Nottingham (April 26, 2015)

Posted on 27 April 2015 by John Haylock

That rare thing nowadays, a seated gig, a respectful attentive audience but sadly no stage diving. Nottingham’s Glee club is mainly a comedy venue but it is also ideal for music due to its beautiful acoustics. That is essential for a bill like tonight’s featuring the stripped back new album Darling Arithmetic from Villagers and the precise vocals of their creative force Conor O’Brien.

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Villagers now have three albums under their belts and they continue to go from strength to strength, consolidating and refining their musical journey, which has already won them a devoted fanbase and one that continues to astonish the attentive listener. Rarely in the history of contemporary music has the delicacy of a perfectly enunciated vocal delivery and backed by exquisitely attractive semi acoustic instrumental passages been so perfectly well executed.

The new album I feel is a polite guest in your house who underneath the calm exterior wants to swear at your Mum. It’s a love album, but also filled with the anger O’Brien feels at times as a gay man facing sexual intolerance in Ireland.

Live O’Brien and band weave hypnotic, hushed tales of love, prejudice and loss, although they can also kick bottom at the drop of a hat. The Waves, from their second album Awayland (2013) for instance was given a lesson it will never forget; all strum and drums to the nth degree.

Conor O'Brien

Conor O’Brien

Yet it’s the new songs that take centre stage and impress, the album is played in its entirety, opening somewhat nervously with the short title track and proceeding to mesmerize with Everything I Am Is Yours and No One To Blame, by the time they hit the wonderful So Naive they were cooking on gas. Darling Arithmetic is basically a solo effort but for the live shows Conor has surrounded himself in a sympathetic cocoon of instinctive and frighteningly adept musicians and on Little Bigot and Hot Scary Summer they are playing as one to such a degree the music attains that elusive and spiritually harmonic gestalt that Mike Scott of The Waterboys once described as the Big Music.

For the encore the band depart temporarily as Conor performs Ship of Promises and Becoming a Jackal solo, the audience is spellbound and hanging on every word of these two tracks from Villagers’ 2010 solo album Becoming a Jackal. The band return for a final flourish with a devastatingly honest Pieces, also from their debut album, as well as Courage, the lead track from Darling Arithmetic that closes a most intimate and powerful show. Darling Arithmetic, it’s fab, do the math.

*Support this evening comes from Surrey born Luke Sital Singh, a tall bespectacled skinny guy with an incredible voice a most deft touch with electric and acoustic guitars, even venturing to the  keyboard at one point to deliver a short intense set of depressing songs, his words not mine. All numbers were from his debut The Fire Inside and very good they were too, especially Fail For You.

Words by John Haylock, pictures by Arthur Hughes

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Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

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Villagers – Darling Arithmetic

Posted on 21 April 2015 by Joe

There’s something so wonderfully precise about Villagers’ frontman Conor O’Brien’s voice. Each line is told with such clarity and on this, their third album, the messag O’Brien wants to convey is loud and clear; this is a love album and one made by a gay man from Ireland.

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So while it is sort of a ‘coming out’ album, there’s far more too it than that, with romance rather than sexuality taking centre stage. As he told the Irish Times in an interview  in April “it’s not a news story: Man is gay” adding that he wants  Darling Arithmetic to be seen as a “human love album because everyone in the world feels those emotions at some stage.”

That is clearly laid out on Hot Scary Summer. Yes there’s mention of the “homophobes” he and his partner encounter, but the real story here is that it’s a break up song. Two men in Ireland encountering prejudice together, only to break up. The overwhelming message here is heartbreak not sexual politics.

Musically as well there’s a clearer sound, with Villagers first two albums feeling very much like full band affairs and crowded as a result. Here it is essentially just O’Brien, his guitar and some slight, added instrumentation. It works better as a complete album as well, with Becoming a Jackal and Awayland having great tracks but lacking consistency. Here for the first time O’Brien has delivered a consistent listen from start to finish with its similar pacing and romantic themes. There’s even some career high tracks to rival Becoming a Jackal’s standout Home. Here the opener Courage, just O’Brien and a gentle, simple strumming, reveals itself to be a pop song of sorts, with a melody that sticks with you long after the album has finished.

After three albums O’Brien finally seems to have settled on a sound to do justice to his undeniable talent as a song writer.

9/10

by Joe Lepper

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