wed 17/04/2024

The Civil Wars, Shepherd's Bush Empire | reviews, news & interviews

The Civil Wars, Shepherd's Bush Empire

The Civil Wars, Shepherd's Bush Empire

Rising American duo given a heroes' welcome but are actually - say it quietly - a bit bland

John Paul White emotes with eyes closedPhotos © Eve Deacon

The Civil Wars are one of those bands rendered suddenly white hot in the UK by a classy performance on Later with Jools Holland. They’re a photogenic country-ish acoustic singer-songwriter pairing whose style is just un-country enough to fit neatly alongside James Morrison on Home Counties i-players, but whose very, very faint tint of Deep South gothic also has the hipsters intrigued.

They have sold out the Shepherds Bush Empire tonight and arrive on stage to enthused applause and yells of appreciation. The crowd are in their early thirties and upwards, straight-looking, and they love this band and consistently let them know it.

civil warsCalifornian singer Joy Williams wears a flowing but simple black dress while Alabama guitarist-singer John Paul White is clad in full dinner jacket and bow tie, setting off his dark beard and long hair elegantly. The stage set-up is simple, two microphones and chairs, and the duo are cinematically handsome, as if they were off to a ball in a Seventies western. It’s a good look, convincing, and the music is skilfully put together - guitar, carefully harmonised vocals and occasionally Williams on keyboards - but I can never quite get on side. Rather than tiresomely put the boot in, though, let’s begin with a list of good things about the evening:

  1. The Civil Wars are humble and apparently overwhelmed by their success, endearingly embarrassed about selling out the Shepherds Bush Empire – “What are you doing here?” they ask us, “This just makes no sense!”

  2. They have a few songs that actually have bite, such as “From This Valley” with its hints of Gillian Welch, or the title track of their album, Barton Hollow, where White swaps from an acoustic to an electric guitar and tells us he will take us “to where I grew up in Alabama”. He does a good job doing so as it’s their best song, all saccharine traits trimmed away in favour of a hellfire outlaw blues.

  3. They do a smart line in covers, from a slothfully funky and doomed take on Portishead’s “Sour Times” to the brilliant set-closing pair; a fabulously original version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”.

  4. White is dryly funny. Where Williams sometimes gushes, he punctures proceedings with wry asides. She dedicates one song to the baby she shyly, proudly shows us, by turning sideways, is growing inside her. It’s a long, thoughtful introduction and White then announces that the song in question is Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast”. The song turns out to be the longing, lullaby-esque “To Whom It May Concern”, instead, but he gets his laugh and it’s a loud one. He also makes a good gag about how suspicious it was that Adele picked up six Grammys… but only after she toured the US with the Civil Wars last year.

  5. Everyone at the Shepherds Bush Empire, apart from me, seemed to be completely sucked in, whirled away on The Civil Wars sweetly emotive southern-lite trip. I felt very churlish but…

The whole night reeked of twee. Williams' persona came across as rather like kooky Mary Steenburgen in Back to the Future III, and together the pair emanated a peachy clean vibe that was more Osmonds than Tennessee (where they met), or perhaps The Carpenters are an even better reference point.

civil wars 2While the crowd revelled in the extended episodes of vocal sparring, played against earnest crowd silence (the band asked for the bars to close while they played) I soon began to find them irritating, candy cute rather than uplifting, especially in the song “Forget Me Not”.

“This is a dance song,” White announces before playing “I’ve Got This Friend” and you can see what he means, that there are the bones of a formal southern jig somewhere in the piece, but everything just washes by, these songs are moods with little meat on their bones. “Birds of a Feather” is typical, with its line “where she walks no flowers bloom” and its mood of winsome Americana heartbreak, but there's not a great deal to actually get your teeth into. Most of what the Civil Wars do, rather than the trimmings, is a bit wet, much too wholesome, and not rich enough in hard content. In fact, it’s the kind of thing my Grandma would listen to on bland old BBC Radio 2 in the Eighties. We used to call it M.O.R. - Middle of the Road  - but I have to admit this time round it’s in a winningly cool disguise.

Watch the video for "Poison & Wine"

Together the pair emanated a peachy clean vibe that was more Osmonds than Tennessee


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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I went to see them at Leeds on Sunday, and although I think that some of the exchanges between the duo seemed a little contrived, you seem to be missing the point, especially about the music. You don't even talk about the harmonies, which are unbelievably good, and the stripped down nature of the songs does not constitute a lack of "meat", rather confidence in the songs to stand up on their own. Also just because songs don't involve a five piece ensemble or lyrics about sex and fire doesn't make them "bland"; if you knew anything about the guitar you'd appreciate what's on offer here. They pleasantly surprised me and I look forward to catching them again.

I agree with Anthony above. From your review, you do appear to be commenting more on them and their characters rather than the music, but i could just have the wrong end of the stick there Also I don't know if you meant they sung "From This Valley" at this show, or just that its part of their set sometimes, but I'm pretty sure they did not sing it. Unless I was in a trance at that point, but I dont recall it being sung. My apologies if anyone else can confirm that they did. I was no where near a bar so I didnt realise they were closed, but I think thats a great idea. Some people are beyond rude at quiet shows like this and it was very noticable the lack of general din and distracting noise when some ignorant people wont shut up. I wish more artists would request that. I first saw them supporting James Vincent McMorrow in May last year and they were by far the most entertaining and interesting band/stage chemistry/music arrangement I'd seen in some time. However bland some might find their music, it was the interaction between them as well as their music that first drew my attention. Each to their own I suppose eh. It just feels like you're thinking "well everyone else likes them, so i'm going to pick holes in them" I don't know if you saw the support act, I personally found them extremely dull, but seemed like nice people, yet I'm sure some people rave about them. Would be interested in what you thought about them too.

And I stand corrected on the From this Valley comment - i have read another review mentioning it, but I still totally dont remember it! Very weird, i didnt move the whole night. Must be time for my medication!

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