"Why do you keep a mandarin orange on here? Did you think it was a shaker?" Conor O'Brien brandishes the fruit at Mali Llewellyn as she sets the tuning for her harp. She doesn't reply, so we never get to the bottom of her citrus habits, but it was a central moment in a unique and intimate gig.
The upstairs of the O2 was packed when we arrived, but we walked into a room full of zombies. The crowd was stood facing the stage, emotionless and blank but intensely focused. It wasn't like no one noticed that it was weird - O'Brien made a few attempts to get the crowd going, including recounting the drunken frenzy of their Manchester gig. But the Oxford audience stayed resolutely stoic and unmoving, determined to hear every note of the music (I was pretty sure I got shushed at one point). It openly questioned the notion of a typical gig experience and what people usually expect from live music, the audience behaving as if they were in an opera theatre rather than the O2. But it forced Villagers to perform at their very best. Rather than ripping out tunes to drunk people, the band had the complete attention of their crowd.
Villagers' style is hard to pin down, floating somewhere near indie folk but flirting with 80s synth pop while sneaking a cheeky look at stadium rock. The band are often closely tied to their Irish roots, the harmonies and background melodic snippets reminiscent of progressive folk groups like Kila. But they're equally at home with more rocky grooves and broader ethereal textures, producing a really wide range of music. Musically, the band are polished and comfortable with each other. O'Brien's distinctive voice is well-placed in their warm textures and Gwion Llewellyn's simultaneous playing of drums and flugelhorn is a sight to behold. While the songs are often frustratingly formulaic - big stadium opening cutting down to vocals and guitar - the balletic melodies, emphasised by fragmentary rhythms, and the enormous variation of styles grab interest and demark difference between tunes.
Villagers' use of live effects - mainly exacerbated reverb and delicate touches of delay - is an innovative turn from a band that could function acoustically. Mediating the sound so much gives the impression of a more cohesive and solid band, but it also creates distance between the performers and the audience. The heavy use of electronics in live performance is a rarity in this kind of music, and the group should be praised for their innovation. But for a band like Villagers, whose use of 'folky' instruments, plaid shirts and rustic banter breeds expectations of a certain type of authenticity, there seems to be a confusion between what they're trying to be.
The silence of the audience was an indicator of their attention and appreciation, which Villagers could have used to create an amazingly intimate gig - and they undoubtedly played at their best with such a discerning crowd - but instead they tried to force their listeners into a more typically lively mode. However, the audience's resistance created some magical moments, especially during songs featuring fewer members of the band, and the crowd's connection to the music was electrically palpable.