The Civil Wars - Manchester and Lancaster

Manchester Academy 2

During a spiralling, part-improvised coda to ‘Falling’, with Joy Williams transported, aloft on a knife-edge tension, finding strings of notes from heaven knows where, supported by the pull of a breathless and rapt audience, magically as one with John Paul White’s delicate, ghostly guitar… some fucker sneezes. Seriously, people have spent most of their adult lives in prison for less.

Tonight is a considerable challenge for the Texan duo writes Gary K, a word-of-mouth sensation whose miraculous growth sees them return to further promote their debut Barton Hollow in the UK’s theatres this Autumn. Their trajectory is galactic and is tonight some rungs up from last year’s Manchester debut around the corner in the cosier confines of the Night and day Café. A good portion of tonight’s thousand strong faithful raise their voices when Williams asks how many of us were there. She’s not convinced: “That’s a few more than would have fitted in that room…” They handle this large hall with casual charm and winning good grace. Even though they note that we’re “crammed in like sardines” (A very good call, actually. Not for the first time of late, a full house in this place feels almost dangerously rammed - needs sorting), they work tirelessly to keep their unique unforced intimacy to the fore. Despite the best efforts of a thoughtless few, who struggle with the challenges of keeping their mouths shut for more than a few seconds, tonight is as triumphant and special as an hour of live music has any right to be.

Hints of just-go-with-what-feels-right speckle the set with unique, one-night-only magic. Williams sidles up to White during instrumental passages, seeing where he’s going, or maybe daring him to take them somewhere. ’20 Years’ heads off-planet, Williams climbing a ladder of notes from almost off-mic. White is her equal: wry between songs (“The stomping was a nice touch,” he notes, as they return for a brace of encores) and deeply lost in his and his partner’s performance. He fires ‘Barton Hollow’ (“Y’all know it’s pronounced ‘holler’, right?” Mmm. What does he take us for?) with brimstone, switching to electric and there are cheers for its intro. The album is despatched with extremes of delicacy and volume. Four choice covers are monumental. See them yourself if you’re curious: for now know that they re-invent, amongst others, Portishead and Leonard Cohen with authority and guile.

Indeed, though the set-list is faultless, it’s all about the performance, which is as simultaneously relaxed and furiously committed as your dreams might lead you to expect. Someone, with laser insight, nails it as we file out: “It’s the dynamics…the dynamics are the key.” What else could it be? After all, it’s only a couple of voices and a guitar. Anyone could do that. Right? Oh, and despite its best efforts, and that of a few dicks near the back who incur the wrath of the “Shhh!” brigade, a large hall doesn’t defeat them. On their day, you suspect they could silence the Coliseum. All the same, those of us who hopped on just a bit too late, kick ourselves, the prospect of seeing them in a tiny venue no doubt long gone…

Lancaster Library

Unless, of course, you’re one of the lucky few (like Holly Newins) who have managed to snatch up a ticket to see the duo perform as part of the Get it Loud in Libraries schedule at Lancaster Library. There are rumours of people exchanging first born children to get in tonight; even my plus one became the subject of a heated bargaining campaign.

It’s the size of Lancaster Library which makes the gig so special tonight. It’s tiny: you don’t just see the whites of the pair’s eyes, you feel actual eye contact as Joy and JP scan the room in bemusement. Despite playing to the gathered masses in Manchester last night, Joy still looks overwhelmed by the crowd, with JP cutting a sarcastic figure against her, looking the epitome of bored chic. Joy’s comment that there are ‘So many of you…!’ – runs the fine line between genuine appreciation and dry sarcasm. Not knowing which it is just adds to her charm. Besides, with that smile she’s already won over the entire room. Effortless is a word I could fling around a lot this evening, especially as they wander on stage and launch into ‘Tip of my Tongue’.

Simplicity is key tonight; it's the stripped back sound of The Civil Wars which really lets you appreciate their combined vocal ability. ‘I’ve Got This Friend’ perfectly showcases his husky tones against her ability harmonise the high notes. It’s a great example of just how important silence is within their sound, the pauses between verses which make so much more sense in a live setting. However, these are occasionally ruined by those less familiar with tonight’s material who insist on filling each gap with the beginnings of applause, until they are shot down by the glare of the rest of the crowd (okay, mostly just me).

‘To Whom It May Concern’ is dedicated to an obviously impending arrival - Joy is due to give birth at the end of June. She smiles and pats her belly, the lyrics ‘I’ve missed you but I haven’t met you’ taking on a whole new meaning. With sideways glances and smirks, The Civil Wars often seem to retreat into their own world, with the audience fighting to try and sneak in. The next day it seems everybody in Lancaster is staking a claim that they were there. But the real witnesses are obvious, wandering the town still in a daze from the magic of the night before.

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