Review: The Civil Wars at The Sugar Club

The Civil Wars onstage at The Sugar Club, Dublin

Review: The Civil Wars at The Sugar Club

The Civil Wars in The Sugar Club, Dublin on September 1st 2011.

Originally published on Goldenplec.

The Sugar Club played host to the first Irish gig for folk duo The Civil Wars. The two first came into my consciousness a few months ago when James Vincent McMorrow joined them on tour and it seemed I wasn’t the only one who had got to know them. Even before opening act Liz Lawrence had taken to the stage, floor space was at a premium so I found myself sitting on the step on the first row of seats.

This was the second time to see Liz Lawrence, she previously opened for Brooke Fraser in the same venue. Tonight, she was in flying form backed on harmonies, cajon and percussion by Harry. Liz Lawrence is a confident performer and again tonight gets the crowd clapping along. Highlight of her set had to be the instantly memorable ‘Monday Morning’ during which she dances with her guitar packing the energy in. Expect this song to take over your radio soon.

Reinforcements in the form of three extra rows of chairs were drafted into the venue before The Civil Wars came to the stage. From the opening notes of ‘Tip of My Tongue’, it’s easy to see why Joy Williams and John Paul White are converting audiences the world over. They exude a playful chemistry, which is really infectious. So much so, you never know quite what is going to happen next. Joy dances on stage and uses her hands and arms freely for expressing the lyrics and John Paul comes across as a cool Johnny Depp/Jack White character.

The duo have a definite deep south country feel and this is egged on through their harmonies. The playfulness is kept going throughout the night, with Joy knocking on John Paul’s guitar during ‘Forget Me Not’ and seemingly trying to have a ‘who can keep the note longest’ competition during ‘In The Valley’.

As the first notes of ’20 Years’ cascades through the auditorium someone behind shows their approval with an ‘Aw yeah’. I doubt they were disappointed. The tenderness of the song shines through and the two show great technique with subtle ‘ooh’ refrains off mic.

The Civil Wars are no fools, they know that no matter how people may be into your music, it’s always good to lighten the mood with cover. If lighten is the right word. The two explain how great pop songs have major keys and happy vibes, they couldn’t do that, Their version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ goes down a treat. Later in the set we a treated to a sublime cover of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm and Jackson 5′s I Want You Back. If only because of the popularity and quality of their covers, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear an album of them at some stage.

John Paul swaps his acoustic guitar for a resonator which gives a more country blues feel. If you could bottle up the essence of the deep south and put it in a song, the title track of their current album ‘Barton Hollow’ would seem to sum it up. Great melody and guitar lines, harmonies and lyrics that bounce of each other. This track is amazing on record but completely comes to life in The Sugar Club. ‘Falling’, ‘C’est La Mort’, and ‘Poison and Wine ‘are songs of such calibre that they ensure The Civil Wars will be around for a long time to come.

It is their stage performance that totally sets them apart though, the playfulness, the combination of harmonies backed by only guitar (and keys on one song) it seems like a simplistic set up but it’s the one that is totally right for The Civil Wars.

The two are about to leave but going by the rapturous response from the audience, have the sense not to leave but to do another couple of songs. As the shouts for ‘more’ are thrown in their direction Joy asks ‘What about your last train?, Oh I’ll leave you to worry about that.’ First time I’ve heard an artist wonder if the audience can get home.

The final tracks of the night are two cover versions, the first Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, with which Joy has fun with charades to parts of the song and John Paul decides to change the lyrics in the last line to ‘James Vincent McMorrow is not my lover’ to acknowledge the great man is in the venue. The duo finished with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me to The End of Love’.

The Civil Wars acknowledged the audience and thanked them for selling out their very first gig in Ireland, going by the crowds that were in The Sugar Club and going on the performance, next time round they will need a venue that has a lot bigger capacity.