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As locations go, the surroundings provided by a venue on a busy Manchester city centre street are about as far away from the glamorous images that the mind conjures up both visually and musically when thinking of places such as California and Alabama. However, on an uncharacteristically balmy September evening Oldham Street’s Night & Day Cafe – a venue that is no stranger to a good night of live music - is warming up nicely in both temperature and anticipation. A hugely enjoyable support set from London based act the Staves – three sisters who combine wonderfully crafted songs with stunning harmonies – has the crowd well and truly in the mood and almost literally rubbing their hands together in expectation for tonight’s headliners – The Civil Wars.

A mere handful of weeks ago I was blissfully unaware of the groundswell of interest in the duo that was gathering momentum stateside and heading towards our shores. Happening upon a video for the title track of their album “Barton Hollow” I discovered not only a dark swamp/country rock sound that instantly appealed but also a melodramatic black and white visual featuring two mesmerizing attractive performers with movie star looks. Following on from that, further internet forays revealed several videos featuring equally interesting new material and a selection of covers performed in their own unique style. The launch pad for the Civil Wars recent success in the USA was the usage in full of what has become their signature tune – “Poison and Wine” in TV drama Grey’s Anatomy which led to an avalanche of You Tube hits and mass media attention.

Some of tonight’s audience will surely have also caught the duo in action as guests of Adele on her recent Manchester dates. As Joy Williams and John Paul White take to the stage to loud applause they prove to be the living manifestation of their on screen image with Joy a slender, dark haired beauty with a smile as bright as her Californian homeland and John Paul’s handsome features illuminated by a warmly wicked grin. If ever there was any fear that all of this style could outweigh the substance beneath it is rapidly dispelled as they begin to seduce the respectfully attentative audience with a collection of songs built around their hauntingly interwoven vocal melodies accompanied solely for the most part by John Paul’s guitar. The Civil Wars came together a mere three years ago from unlikely different musical backgrounds with Joy an experienced recording artist citing a range of influences from Billie Holiday to the Beach Boys and Alabaman John Paul’s style shaped firmly by his Southern roots which have also given lead to the direction that they have taken together. Lyrically many of their songs carry a strong emotional theme of heartbreak with stories of troubled souls fighting to hold onto their dreams as in “Poison and Wine”

“I wish you’d hold me when I turn my back / the less I give the more I get back

Your hands can heal, your hands can bruise / I don’t have a choice but I still choose you”

And on the sad and tender track “Falling” - “Tell me it’s nothing / try to convince me / that I’m not drowning / Oh let me tell you I am”.

For the large part however, despite the lyrical content they deliver these songs with bright smiles and a warm sense of humour which could spoil the atmosphere but instead works perfectly. Even their first cover of the night – a gloriously doomy version of the otherwise joyous sing-along “You Are My Sunshine” is performed with more depth and feeling than ever before. They tease and wind each other up between songs and their on stage chemistry is never less than genuinely addictive. This coupled with the exquisite manner in which their voices combine has the crowd baying ever louder for more after each song.

They appear genuinely happy to be playing these, their first headlining dates and express their surprise and gratitude at the numbers in attendance. As encore, two more covers are given the Civil Wars ‘treatment’ with a delightfully gentle version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” followed by a lush rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”. There is always a satisfaction to be had from having the opportunity to watch someone play in an intimate setting such as tonight when it appears that they will very soon be entertaining larger crowds and receiving greater acclaim and indeed they were delighted to announce that they will soon be appearing on the prestigious musical showcase of ‘Later With Jools Holland’ which can only broaden their deserved appeal and make their next ticket a hot one indeed!  A Civil War worth fighting for.

Review by Shay Rowan

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