It helps to win friends among influential people. The fortunes of The Civil Wars, the Nashville duo comprising Joy Williams and John Paul White, have risen dramatically since Adele began raving about them. Last month, they bagged two Grammys – for Best Folk Album and Best Country Performance. This week, British movie-goers will hear them warbling “Safe & Sound” with Taylor Swift, America’s top musical earner in 2011, on the soundtrack to The Hunger Games.
With their album Barton Hollow, a UK chart hit, the pair couldn’t have looked more pleased to have filled this venerable London venue. She was all gracefulness; he played at being gruff, joking that Adele “was totally using us” by having them support a previous tour. They had dressed for the occasion, but they always do – a knee-length black frock for the lady (we only realised Williams was pregnant when she turned sideways), a dinner jacket and bow-tie for the gentleman. Such attire simply confirmed an impression of their music as the supper-club, soft-focus version of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings or The Handsome Family with the gothic edges smoothed off.
Such was the on-stage chemistry that Williams perforce reminded us that they aren’t romantically involved. Once or twice, she slipped across to a piano, but mostly White just picked or strummed his guitars. Their voices gelled beautifully and worked best when circling around each other before harmonising, as on “20 Years”, “From This Valley” and “C’est La Mort”. But a tendency to bend away from the mikes and string out the wordless whoops and sighs did start to grate. If “show don’t tell” is the first rule of creative writing, the converse increasingly applies to some singers: showy vocals spoil the telling. A cover of Portishead’s “Sour Times” was delivered without affectations, and better for it.
Only the album’s title track, a propulsive swamp-blues that sounds as if it should be the theme to some HBO drama, was a break from the hushed tone that is The Civil Wars’ style. Some of the material was syrupy, but the fans lapped it up. Intriguingly, The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” was rendered with labyrinthine yearning, though the later “Billie Jean” was a pure party piece. Still, this band had plenty to celebrate.