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The Civil Wars at The Komedia, 21 March 2012

So, my phone takes crap pictures from the back of the hall. But you get the Civil Wars vibe: all in black and white, John Paul's tux and guitar, Joy Williams constantly moving and grooving, clearly delighted to be doing what she's doing...

A packed house at Brighton's Komedia last night, sold out weeks ago, gave a very warm reception to a confident and spirited set from the duo of the moment. One album into their career and two Grammys to the good: Best Country Group and Best Folk Album, which hedges the business's bets nicely. Joy affected surprise at the crowd singing along, word perfect. She's going to have to get used to it.

They famously have friends in high places: endorsed by Adele, a collaboration with Taylor Swift just out on The Hunger Games soundtrack. The nudge-your-neighbour gossip last night was that Eric Clapton was sitting at the back with the soundman. But, for once, the hype-detector can stay in its case: they're making it on merits. Their voices do something magical together, entwining, blending, soaring; Joy's alto and John Paul's tenor in similar sonic space but always finding room to be distinctively themselves. They've got the guts (and chops) to do their thing to one, spare guitar (with Joy adding keyboards to just a couple of numbers) and to move off mic on occasion to pull the volume right down.

I'd say their songs are mostly good rather than great, so far. They're always well-constructed and melodic, with some interesting twists, but they can blur into one another. The exceptions are the album's  title track 'Barton Hollow', their most intense and dynamic number, gothic and threatening; and 'Poison & Wine' with its yearning harmonies and great hookline,

'I don't love you, but I always will',

a compelling picture of what might be an abusive relationship – or a mood in a normal marriage. 

Their covers are also exceptional, fine song choices interpreted very distinctively: they encored with 'Billie Jean' and 'Dance Me To The End Of Love' and both were superb.

Now, what next in their rise to world domination? We won't be seeing them play to 500 again soon – they're already booked to play in Brighton again in November at The Dome, which can hold a couple of thousand. In the meantime, Joy will be translating her bump into a baby and they will start thinking about the proverbially difficult second album. It was interesting to hear 'Barton Hollow' introduced as the last song written for the first album – might it signal a change of direction? I wonder whether it will still be just the duo for the bigger halls, or if they'll add some of the instrumentation which brings helpful texture to the first record. And I hope they don't turn their back on covers, as songwriters proud of their craft can sometimes do...

It's going to be an interesting year, however they choose to play it.

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