An eclectic set
The Civil Wars - Live At Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

There’s something about The Civil Wars. Their debut album, ‘Barton Hollow’, was officially released at the beginning of March, and here they are on a sold out UK tour playing to a packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire. And it is packed. Joy Williams and John Paul White walk on to stage, the reception they receive seems to take them by surprise. They look around, they smile to each other, soak it in, and start doing what they do. There’s something about The Civil Wars.

They begin with ‘Tip of My Tongue’, a non-album track taken from their ‘Poison and Wine’ EP, which sets the scene. ‘Forget Me Not’ and a rousing version of ‘From The Valley’ follow, and everyone is smiling.

The relationship between Joy and John Paul intrigues. They have a stage persona that is part gothic, part southern bible-belt. Their relationship on stage is so natural that the songs are delivered as if they are messages between lovers. In reality, they’ve only been singing together for three years after a chance meeting at a ghost co-writing session in Nashville. On another day they may have just ended up writing songs for other people, and passing like ships in the night. Fate, or just pure good fortune, meant that they met, something sparked and everyone who watches and listens is grateful.

Playing the album title track ‘Barton Hollow’ increases the volume, and the confidence. It’s a bit swampy, a bit bluegrass, and not typical of the rest of the album. This is what makes it difficult to categorise the band, it’s part of their appeal.

The Civil Wars are known for their well-considered, beautifully crafted covers that draw from their many and broad influences. An almost unrecognizable version of the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’, and a haunting delivery of ‘Sour’ by Portishead provide a nod to their eclectic influences, and this would be added to in the encore.

A beautifully poignant moment in the gig comes when Joy dedicates a song to her growing baby bump. She’s six months pregnant, glowing, walking on ridiculously high heels, and John Paul introduces the song as being Iron Maiden’s ‘Number Of The Beast’. Of course he’s joking, but it’s a moment that makes you feel as if you’re among friends. Whilst that cover would have been intriguing, they instead play what was intended, being ‘To Whom It May Concern’. The beautiful lyrics clearly resonate with Joy, and the final lines are fitting for someone who is clearly excited about impending motherhood. “Dear whoever you might be, I’m still waiting patiently”.

The evening is finished off with two more covers. Michael Jacksons ‘Billie Jean’ is delivered in such a playful way that you can’t help but smile. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ is delivered with such power and passion that you’d think they’re trying to convince you of their talent. They don’t have to, everyone knows. There’s just something about The Civil Wars.

Words and photo by David Curtis

Click here for a photo gallery of the gig.

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