It is currently au fait with some of the more ironically bearded amongst us to wind up the victrola exclusively for everyone’s favourite part-time Morris dancers Mumford and Sons and dismiss American music as being rather, well, American. American said with a sneer, in the manner of Violet Crawley.
These people have clearly not made contact with The Civil Wars, who represent a piece of cool, blue Americana that flies defiantly in the face of both self-conscious hipster bait and the “nothing-meaning” bland tween pop that dominates the mainstream American music scene. Stripping back much of the flash and bang of the rest of the market, they replace it with something rawer, purer and much more interesting. It’s the aural equivalent of drinking Jack and wearing a Stetson and so good it makes you want to punch things. Indeed my friend did, namely me, when she found out I’d scored a ticket. The Civil Wars have that effect on people.
The set started a little slowly, the acoustic guitar feeling a little hammy rather than homey, but it became clear a few songs in that we were witnessing something pretty special. From the playful ‘Tip of my Tongue’ through the emotional lament ‘My Father’s Father’ to a tongue in cheek rendition of ‘Billie Jean,’ the set was characterised by a wit and understanding that managed both a wink and a delicate quiver. However, it was only mid-way through the exquisite ‘Falling’ that it all finally clicked for me. The Civil Wars have been criticised for making safe, bland music, but that’s not the case at all. What their music actually does is show you things that you already know, tapping into shared experiences and affirming that we as people feel together.
This universality is achieved in part as so much of the emotional register is conveyed not through the lyrics (which I must concede oscillate from the sublime to the saccharine) but through the music itself, particularly their harmonies which manage to combine spider-web delicacy with a defiant, stout robustness. Their voices run into each other like water, conveying emotion with purity so powerful that at one point the audience was so quiet we heard a baby gurgling. Joy Williams called on her audience to treat the venue “like a living room” but she was largely ignored, as a strange reverential silence hummed below the songs, with eruptive applause in between them.
Before any of us could get too carried away, these moments of unity were interrupted and complimented by the crowd-pleasing ‘Barton Hollow’ and ‘Birds of a Feather’ which transformed the (appropriately raftered) Corn Exchange into a barn-dance. This in turn was balanced by the soulful and mysterious ‘20 Years’, whilst the bruised vocals of the penultimate ‘Poison and Wine’ left the room noticeably moved.
Cambridge may get cold in November, but the crowd left tonight warmed by the affirmation of standing in a room full of people who know what home feels like and if it can do that, the music must be pretty special indeed.