Monday, 26 March 2012

The Civil Wars, Leeds Metropolitan University

Name a male-female musical duo with great chemistry. Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris? Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers? Justin Timberlake and Madonna? Only kidding with the last one. That’s the thing about chemistry. It’s hard to define what makes it, but it’s painfully easy to spot when it’s missing. The Civil Wars, a pair hailing from Nashville, Tennessee who play country-folk-blues topped by gorgeous harmonies have chemistry in abundance. On the strength of this performance, they could be destined for a place in the pantheon of great duos.
In fact, whereas many musical pairings spend their time hoping to sell more records by trying to convince us that their bond is extra special and dropping hints that they may, just, be seeing each other outside office hours, Joy Williams and John Paul White of the Civil Wars spent much of this gig trying to convince the crowd that they are firmly just good friends. They didn’t convince on this point. But they were utterly convincing musically. This was one of those gigs where the crowd that had turned out on a Sunday night were genuinely thrilled with the music they heard. The band looked utterly thrilled back, and it was hard not to blame them.
The set-up was spartan – a guitar, two voices and an occasional piano. The key to their success is the harmonies. Their singing was joyous - their voices rose and fell sublimely together, and each took turns to deviate from the melody for an instance before returning to hit the big notes that made the hairs on your neck stand on end. They often smiled at each other as they leaned together to sing. The sheer joy of the music they were making and the fun they were having was evident. Many of the songs were simple slow or mid-tempo laments of love and loss and if there was a criticism, it could be that a few of the numbers were a bit similar. The highlight of the show was Barton Hollow, a dirgy, swamp-like blues song which sounded like Creedence Clearwater Revival updated for the 21st century. Led by White’s powerful, rhythmic guitar, it was elemental, intoxicating and a stand-out.
They certainly looked the part. In long black dress, Joy writhed and wiggled her way through the performance. Armed with an acoustic guitar, John Paul looked like an extra from a film about, well, the Civil Wars. The pair seem genuinely surprised by the response they got from the Leeds crowd. At one point, Joy asked the audience – why have we never played in this city before?  The audience responded with yet another enthusiastic cheer. Chemistry? It’s all about the elements and knowing how to put them together. The Civil wars are mastering the process and the reaction was spellbinding.

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