The Civil Wars, The Lumineers at Mandela Hall 28th of October 2012

The Lumineers have quirky folk down to an art form. Visually there’s the barefoot pianist who, when he switches to mandolin wanders the stage like a troubled troubadour. There’s Neyla Pekarek who plays cello with an irresistible grin and when set free from her cello leaps about the stage, spinning and clapping to the spell of the music. Lead singer Wesley Schultz is almost the straight man, simply clad in denim and lynchpinning the entire ensemble with subtle charisma, at times his wry sense of humour shining through, especially when singing Classy Girls Don’t Kiss In Bars. The songs are put across with boundless energy and their simplicity makes the encouraged call and response with the crowd easy to carry out, one song built around chants of the words “Hey” and “Ho” (titled Hey Ho) inspiring the audience to carry on responding throughout, instead of dying away quietly as audience participation so often does. An encore of sorts is called for, the audience so won over by the support that they don’t want their conquistadors to leave and a quiet doubt sets in that The Civil Wars might not be able to top this.

Their album’s an ode to love and loss, softly whispered pain and wistful romance so when The Civil Wars come on stage in complete blackness lit only by a stagehand’s torch we’re expecting a serious show, heartbreakingly earnest. The duo manage to completely disarm us by providing exactly what we don’t expect: toothy grins and charisma. They’re well aware of how to play to an audience; From This Valley containing an early show highlight, a crowd-pleasing harmonised held high note that reflects their smiles back at them from every audience member. 20 Years is truly Joy Williams’ show, containing her trademark wails, emotive yet perfectly pitched. Her hands weave a spell, dramatically acting out the lyrics in a Stevie Nicks fashion as her voice tells the story. John-Paul is the steady cement to her drama, suited and booted like Johnny Depp in Don Juan de Marco, playing guitar that flits from almost Spanish flamenco to blues to simple country. His expertise brings to mind Rodrigo y Gabriela except John-Paul brings his own singing voice to the party, a voice warm and full that can hold its own against Joy’s, which is no mean feat.

It’s easy to see why they’ve got so much attention, appearing on the soundtrack of Grey’s Anatomy. I’ve Got This Friend is perfectly suited to a Hollywood rom-com, a duet that you can imagine being televised in split screen, the duo singing as if each unaware of the other in a sweet almost-happy-ending of a song. Any notions of the gig being overly sickly sweet are dispelled with Barton Hollow though, danger lurking  just under the ferocious guitar twang, harmonies that would not be out of place in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The whole gig is an intimate experience, the clearly enamoured crowd shouting jokes that are quickfired back by the duo, sometimes during the course of a song. They encore with a cover of Billie Jean, finally relenting to the crowd catcalls for that song and it’s a sinister creeping blues affair, obvious harmonies present that we have somehow never considered before. Then it’s over, with the realisation that after the multi-instrumentalism of The Lumineers, The Civil Wars have held us entranced with just two voices and one guitar, both acts shining in what they do.