The Civil Wars + The Staves, Union Chapel Islington, Tuesday 27th September 2011
Before I get the main event, a deserved mention for the support act. Given the unreserved seating at the Union Chapel I was never going to dawdle on my way to the Northern Line but when a music journalist friend said that The Staves were “the best new band in the country”, I made doubly sure I was there on time. Hundreds of people were queueing round the block at 7pm, and we were not disappointed. The Staves, a trio of sisters, appear to have taken the ethereal close harmony stylings of Fleet Foxes and done something distinctly English with them. Stunningly precise and accurate singing, charmingly humble chat and elegant writing. Their debut album, produced by Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year. I’ll be queueing up.
Tuesday night caught Joy Williams and John Paul White in an exceptionally playful mood, toying with their songs, flirting with one another. At one point Williams remarked “Outta the palm of my hand,” and she was right. From the moment they took the stage to the moment they finished their second encore, the audience lapped up everything they had to offer.
I’ve had a hard time in the past trying to explain what The Civil Wars do. “It’s sorta folky, country-ish but soulful, y’know?”, I said to the friend who was coming to the gig with me. In the end, they explained it themselves better than I could have done, telling the story of how they met at a kind of songwriter’s speed-dating event, where writers were paired up for an hour in a room with a piano and had to create something. Joy Williams’ heritage lies in California (Beach Boys, Carpenters) and her parents’ jazz records (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald) while John Paul White grew up in Alabama listening to Johnny Cash. The result has elements of all of those influences; Williams’ vocal delivery owes a lot to Ella and White’s tenor is capable of everything from authentic Appalachian high-lonesome delicacy to rough, bluesy growling. Shorn of their studio overdubs and accompanied by White’s robust guitar playing, their songs are compact, potent things.
A capacity audience at Islington’s venerable, beautiful Union Chapel greeted the duo, dressed as always in black, Williams in a sleek dress and heels followed by White in his customary black suit and bowtie. They proceeded to dance their way, often literally in Joy Williams’ case, through a set including most of their debut album Barton Hollow, a smattering of non-album tracks new and old and a choice selection of covers. Williams in particular seems to delight in starting a song without announcing it and then revelling in the audience’s puzzlement when it turns out to be “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5 or “Disarm” by the Smashing Pumpkins. Whilst they perhaps overplayed this tactic, it’s a clever one nonetheless; my only fear is that they run the risk of reducing their gift for performance to a conjurer’s trick. Still, for the most part they moved artfully from fast to slow, mournful to playful and original to cover, never lingering on one mood for too long. Between songs they talked to the audience like we were old friends, admiring the architecture, thanking us repeatedly for coming, promising they would come back to a place that was becoming one of their favourite venues even before they’d finished playing.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about seeing The Civil Wars live, particularly in a space like the Union Chapel, is their control of dynamics. Their communication onstage seems almost telepathic at times, even if the more quotidian reality is a combination of eye contact and practice; with in a single word or phrase they can move from soft to loud, rising and falling as one. Moreso than on Barton Hollow or on the Eddie’s Attic live recording that introduced so many of us to their sound, they sing as a single entity, moving seamlessly from close harmony to interwoven conversational exchanges.
The set showed as much deft control of dynamics as the songs themselves. Williams and White display a profound understanding of what they can do, and wield that power to great effect. They ended, inevitably, with “Poison and Wine”, a brutal, impassioned love song that they clearly recognise as their most powerful play. In the Union Chapel it reduced several people around me to tears and prompting a genuine, honest standing ovation that swept the venue with spontaneity, looks of wonder and amazement on the faces of the crowd. A two-song encore, the second song performed unplugged on the very edge of the stage, wasn’t enough and we rose to our feet again. They came back, but nobody moved, 800 people stood, clapped, cheered. One more song whilst we all stood and then they slipped away.
Every once in a while, the regular gig-goer has the privilege of seeing something truly remarkable and unique. They’re the ones where you tell people years later “I was there,” the ones that were as special for the band as they were for the audience. Somewhere around the moment Joy Williams started crying, disbelief and happiness at the crowd that refused to sit down or stop applauding, a quick look around the Union Chapel was all you needed to realise that this was a special night.