Conor O'Brien was in great form in Townhall Theatre, Cavan. Photo: Dmitrijs Germanovs

We waited for something, the Villagers arrived

REVIEW O’Brien closes Arts Festival on a high note

For pure musicality, ear for melody and artistry of lyric, the Villagers’ main man Conor O’Brien is as close as we have to Van Morrison’s successor as Ireland’s pre-eminent songwriter.

That he played Townhall Theatre on Sunday night is a fabulous coup for the Cavan Arts Festival and a genuine high note on which to wrap up the event. Mercifully it wasn’t quite sold out as the heat generated by the large crowd was bordering on uncomfortable – however it was a relief that so many were there to witness such a memorable gig.

O’Brien’s song-writing prowess should come as no surprise considering his Dublin mantelpiece is burdened by two Ivor Novello Awards. If confirmation of his talent was needed, for this reviewer it came upon hearing the song Fever Dreams live and realising O’Brien had somehow eased the word “disambiguation” into a lyric describing the disappearance of a rainbow.

For much of O’Brien’s setlist - dominated by 2021’s Fever Dreams album - he sang in his measured, understated way. But Sunday’s performance was punctuated with moments when his voice was fully unleashed and allowed to soar. Just when he appeared to tremble at the summit of his range he further pumps those angel wings to a crescendo coloured with vibrato. On Nothing Arrived, the Villagers’ charm was distilled to its essence as O’Brien held the stage alone. The crowd were enraptured as he held one delicate strand of a note for what seemed an impossibly long time.

O’Brien’s vocal virtuosity was matched only by the musicianship of his fellow Villagers, each taking turns to pick up a clarinet, saxophone or double bass while O’Brien occasionally set aside his guitar to blow a mean trumpet. It was great to simply relax into a night of witnessing professionals do their thing.

To pick out highlights would be to regurgitate much of the setlist, but The First Day was magnificent.

Circles in the Firing Line began as a meandering sunny, Californian pop-infused number, before O’Brien donned his Telecaster to break into a country riff. This signalled the launch of a coda which descended into an assault as heavy as the Townhall has ever sustained, while O’Brien screeched: “You’re f*cking up my favourite dream’. It was exhilarating.

The encore was brimming with crowd pleasers, including that solo performance of Nothing Arrived, a raucous rendition of Becoming A Jackal and the awesome So Simpatico.

If a Cavan venue has hosted a better concert, I’d like to hear about it.