The Civil Wars
22 March 2012
Tip of My Tongue
Forget Me Not
From This Valley
I’ve Got This Friend
C’est La Mort
I Want You Back
Birds of A Feather
To Whom It May Concern
My Father’s Father
Poison & Wine
Dance Me To The End of Love
It’s been one of the best two years for live concerts that I can remember … Simon Felice, The Unthanks, The Decemberists, Jonathan Wilson, John Cale, Bap Kennedy, Van Morrison. So my quality level is set on high. The first thing to say is that The Civil Wars are major stars. They have the personality and presence and musical ability that means they can follow anyone without fear.
Like many, I heard about their 2012 Grammy award, saw the YouTube clip of Billie Jean, and bought the album, Barton Hollow. I’ve played it once or twice every day since. I’ve discussed it too. A couple of people felt it was let down slightly by a samey-ness of pace and mood setting in. I disagreed, but I knew what they meant. That doesn’t happen one iota live. They start with something new to most; Tip of My Tongue which isn’t even among the plethora of bonus tracks on the second, “tour” version of Barton Hollow. It’s from the Poison & Wine EP. In particular, the centrepiece is the song Barton Hollow, mid-show, On the album the track breaks the surrounding mood and I thought its selection as title track and current “single” odd. On stage it’s electrifying, hair standing on end stuff. John Paul is an astonishingly powerful rhythm guitarist. The other mood shift is the cover of Portishead’s Sour done through the tour, but especially apposite in Portishead’s home town of Bristol. To be honest, I never liked the song, but, well, they do it better than the original.
When you listen to the album, it’s not just the duo plus guitar. That stripped down approach is what made Billie Jean reinvented as Americana folk song so magic, but there are a lot of touches of subtle instrumental additions on the record. I knew they toured just as a duo. They’re coming back to Britain later in the year and their status is going to be several rungs higher after this tour. The first thing they should resist with higher ticket prices and larger venues is adding anything at all to the mix. Their magic, their USP (unique sales pitch) in marketing terms is the intricate interplay of voices, swapping roles then blending together. They fill the room with rich music with just those three instruments: two voices, one guitar. In two numbers, Joy moves to the piano (Poison & Wine obviously), but that’s it. They really have to keep it like that. Yes, add bass and touches of strings on the records, but continue to demonstrate you don’t need them live.
The set list is set in concrete, I suspect. I didn’t take notes, but I looked at two previous online and took a print-out and repeated the list above. I’m pretty sure it was identical. That’s very different to the last two shows I saw, Van Morrison, and Bap Kennedy, where the artist is shifting around a huge repetoire as the mood takes them. Somewhere down the line, in a year or two, they’ll get knocked for sticking religiously to a pre-determined list. I remember Supertramp always did in the late 70s. There’s a valid reason. Even though there are only two of them, with one playing, the vocal interplay is so intricate, so exquisite, that I can’t see space for improvisation. It doesn’t mean you’ll get a facsimile show. They play around with mic positions, talk to the audience. They went down a storm, in a tightly packed hall, and I think with such huge reaction, they should have a further encore up their sleeve. They joked twice that they were playing all they know, but there’s a very good You Are My Sunshine on YouTube, which would have done nicely. On the other hand, Joy is pregnant, and proudly stood sideways to present her bump when she dedicated To Whom It May Concern to the baby. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have known. Her sinuous onstage movement is a major part of the act. They PERFORM. It’s a wonderful act too. See the Poison & Wine music video for example. (This link works on YouTube from the UK, you may need to Google it elsewhere). If you thought Billie Jean a radical reinterpretation, it’s nothing compared to what they do with the The Jackson Five’s I Want You Back.
The warmth of their audience interaction is another plus. When they came on for the Billie Jean encore and people were yelling for Billie Jean, one wag yelled out FREEBIRD! (It’s an American tradition to demand Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most famous song at wildly inappropriate points in concerts). John Paul raised a finger and said, ‘And I do that with all the love in my heart …’ which got the biggest laugh of the night. OK, they didn’t write it, but everyone is so bowled over by their take on Billie Jean that they should release it as a single. It was #1 in 1983. It could repeat it twenty-nine years on. Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End of Love was the second encore and I collect Cohen cover versions on a Playlist. This is one of the best.
So a five star musical performance. However, it wasn’t wrapped by the O2 Academy as a five star evening. I think the dynamics and timetabling were poor. The tickets said “Doors Open 7 pm”. We parked on the street, so wandered down at half past six to locate the venue, intending to go for a coffee. There was already a sizable queue. We knew from The Decemberists at this all-standing venue that there were a few choice places to be for sight lines … like at the front of the balcony. So we joined the queue. By the time the Civil Wars took the stage at 9.10, we had been standing for two hours and forty minutes. The venue was packed out, so you couldn’t leave your strategic position to get a drink, and hardly anyone did. So stretching out the evening for the venue to sell beer was pointless.
At eight ten, the support came on. No support act was billed (a major minus in my book; I like to know). They finished at 8.40, then it took thirty minutes to remove one monitor, move two mic stands and two guitars forward. During that thirty minutes, the roadies vainly tried to make noises on the mic and guitar (checking John Paul’s bank of foot switches). Throughout, the O2 system played music at a higher volume than either band. That’s unforgiveable. OK, it was Gotye, but no band should ever allow a DJ to blast it out louder than them, nor to blast it out while they’re vainly soundchecking. It’s the third time that’s happened when I’ve been at an O2 too. It ruins the dynamics. Also you’re standing there for thirty minutes, but can’t hold a conversation. In the 70s, any roadies worth their salt would have had the DJ dangling from the balcony by his ankles. In my case, I would have let him go too. Of course in those days, the ability to threaten violence was part of the job description. Another annoyance was that during the interval, they continually tested two blinding spots which were aimed directly at the balcony. Now you could say it was the venue, but many venues have an upstairs or a rake. During the show, 20 Years, one of my favourite songs so far this year, was ruined by having both lights facing straight on to the balcony. We all stood with both hands over our eyes. The painful experience was repeated a few numbers later, and full marks to John Paul, who noticed, asked the balcony if we were being blinded, (Yes!!!) and asked the lighting people not to use the spots again. I thought even having them there at all was inept lighting.
The other thing is that they shouldn’t have had to move anything in the interval, nor fart around with lights. The whole concept of a support then an interval to fill out the evening is not necessary. The Civil Wars were the bargain of the year at £12.50 a ticket. Van Morrison was five times the price at £65. He came on at the dot of eight o’clock, and finished on the dot of nine-thirty. Nobody was disappointed. Nobody wanted a support, nor an interval. The Civil Wars had youth, a Grammy, a current hit album AND good looks on their side in comparison to Van. They should have done the same. Doors 7 pm. On stage at 8. Off at 9.30. They’re more than good enough to sustain that, and no one wants the standing around. The support (Matthew and the Atlas) was well-received, but I didn’t come to see them, and while I appreciate the need for new bands to have a showcase, would much rather not have heard them. I’d add that the roadies had stopped messing around a good ten to fifteen minutes before The Civil Wars come on. I’ll repeat something I’ve said in half a dozen reviews: The Royal Shakespeare Company, like every other theatrical team in the country, have never thought it cool to leave the audience hanging around for quarter of an hour. This was not an ice cream and pee break interval. No one moved.
The O2 in Bristol is clean. The security staff are polite and friendly (and very efficient when someone passed out at the front), but they need to sack the DJ (but please hang him from the balcony first).
Overall view? As soon as I finished this review I booked to see them in Brighton in November.
See also related article on gigs, venues and pricing.