Live Review: The Civil Wars @ Lancaster Library

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Photo by Sarah Christian

The Civil Wars’ first album ‘Barton Hollow’ was released late last year, and their sincere, no frills, old world-y music has evidently gone down a treat not only with a fair number of hip trendy youngsters, but also with an older (or perhaps I should say ‘less young’) crowd, as the audience at their Lancaster Library gig (or ‘concert’ as the middle-aged music lovers in the audience were undoubtedly calling it) showed.

Since the release of their debut album, they have shot to a medium level of fame, which has culminated in supporting big name acts like Emmylou Harris and Adele, and prestigious appearances on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ and ‘Later… With Jools Holland’. The American boy-girl duo still seem charmingly surprised by their sudden acclaim; they were visibly taken aback by the hugely enthusiastic response (that was at the same time oddly formal, like you would hear at a classical concert) they received both upon their arrival on stage at the Library and after every song they played. During the long applause after each song, they usually looked at each other disbelievingly, and occasionally said things like “Wow, they really like us” (as well as the now familiar “We’ve never played in a library before”) in endearing deep south accents.

After a tender opening with ‘Poison and Wine’ followed by ‘Forget Me Not’, The Civil Wars surprised with a cover of Portishead’s ‘Sour Times’, an interesting choice for an American folk duo, but one which was unexpected and delightful. This was followed by the truly rocking ‘Barton Hollow’, a foot-stomper of a song which was something of a shock after the fragility and prettiness of the ones that had preceded it. Still though, it stood out as a highlight of the night, singer Joy Williams dedicating the song to “all the kids who ever got shushed in a library.”

The music of The Civil Wars is principally acoustic, gentle, and about love and things (and it might be these folk sensibilities which attract older people), and as such they played to absolute and reverential silence while the audience listened hard, truly savouring the breathtaking (a word which I feel fully justified in using) duets and simple, finger-plucked guitar, and watched the pair’s on stage chemistry – which was an impossible aspect of their performance to miss. Throughout the show they were frequently throwing each other almost theatrically dreamy looks while the other sang – and when they harmonised, they looked into each other’s eyes so deeply that it was difficult not to feel slightly embarrassed watching them.

The way they acted suggested that they were either married or acting inappropriately flirtatious – and after some post-gig research it turns out it’s the second one, though it’s more likely that it’s their deep love of the music that causes these amorous-looking glances. Later in the set Williams told the audience (with a seemingly almost tearful joy) that she had just found out that she was pregnant, which certainly added to the emotional investment in the music, so much so that the announcement could have been carefully planned out to produce such a reaction – but probably wasn’t.

I hadn’t heard of The Civil Wars before attending this show, and since then I’ve developed a musical relationship with them not unlike finding a new girlfriend. Above all the concert was sincere and genuine, something carried across by the obvious, thorough decency of the pair – they seemed the kind of people who would point it out to you if you had a post-it with an insult stuck to your back, or who would buoy you up with kind words after a tough break-up. It was this feeling of familiarity and friendliness on The Civil Wars’ part which lent the night much of its enjoyment, and after an encore of ‘Billie Jean’, a classic song that anyone can enjoy, the concert ended with another long round of applause.

They may not be on the cutting edge of the music scene, but the fact that The Civil Wars exist, to me, is a sign that there is still hope and decency in the world.

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