I got into The Civil Wars about a year ago when their memorable debut album, “Barton Hollow”, became available on e-Music, so I thought I was ahead of much of the curve in the UK since it didn’t come out here until a few days ago. Serves me right for being so smug; the Queens’ Hall is full to bursting with an audience who already know all the words.
Since discovering them, I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I was as handsome as John Paul White, or wishing I had a girlfriend as gorgeous as Joy Williams, or wishing I could sing as well as either one of them. I’m not, I haven’t and I can’t; life’s tough.
I haven’t heard two voices that belong together so much since Simon and Garfunkel. Artie used to say he was so in synch with Paul because of the intensitiy with which he studied the way his partner sang, the way his mouth formed words, so that he could mirror it. That sounds odd, but by gum it worked, and those voices were perfect together. Much the same with White and Williams. Watch the attention they pay to each other in this lovely video of them performing Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love“, Williams watching intently the movements of White’s fingers on the fretboard as they sway together. It’s one of my favourites.
From the raucous train whistle hoot of the title track to the anguished interplay of the harmony on their breakthrough song, “Poison and Wine” – a song which actually doesn’t really go anywhere but is quite lovely anyway – these two people were made to sing together. It must take a huge amount of work – it can’t just come naturally – but every crescendo or diminuendo, no matter how brief, every entrance to and exit from phrases or even single notes, every grace note and inflection and breath and sigh are all in perfect sync. Both have fabulous voices with perfect pitch and real range, White digging deep or soaring high and Williams belting out like a diva when necessary on songs like “Dance Me…” and “Falling”. There’s lots of gentleness too; a song like “I’ve got a Friend” could veer towards the twee end of the spectrum if it wasn’t delivered with such sincerity.
In addition, they are both very charismatic. White is all Alabama gentleman, laconic and dry; Williams is playful and flirtatious, befitting her Californian roots. They are also genuinely taken aback by the audience which is, I have to say, absolutely brilliant, probably the very best audience I’ve ever been part of. The songs – and this is generally speaking quiet folk music – are listened to in utter silence and respect (one mumble way up the back was quickly shooshed by numerous people), and in between the songs the audience goes nuts in appreciation. Completely nuts. Williams thanks the audience for being “pin drop” quiet and then totally raucous; White assures us that we’re the audience of the tour. Watching their reactions to the roar of approval they get after every song – Williams beaming delight, White lowering his head and shaking it gently in bemused disbelief – I believe them. It was a privilege to have played my part.
The only flaw is that there isn’t enough. The whole of “Barton Hollow” gets an airing, and there are four or five other songs, including their winsome, witty take on “Billie Jean” that has become a bit of a You Tube sensation. They are at the very beginning of their career together, so they haven’t built a huge repertoire. I may have to wait for the second album since Williams is expecting – the “wee one” (she has Edinburgh connections) is apparently going bananas tonight – but it’ll mean the shows will be longer. Quite frankly, they could have just played the whole set again and the audience would have been perfectly happy.
Really, this duo is musically perfect, as well as being charming and beautiful: Peters and Lee they aint. They are going to be deservedly huge, but I hope never so huge that they have to play to arenas; it would be such a loss not to see them in an intimate venue like this when the atmosphere is just so magical.
James Grant swears a lot, but he’s allowed to because he’s a fucking genius.
I don’t think I can have a favourite Scottish band because then I’d have to pick between Love and Money and The Blue Nile – and I couldn’t make that choice. “Dogs in the Traffic”, L&M’s third album, is, however, my favourite Scottish album, and perhaps my favourite album ever. Released in 1991, it sounds absolutely fresh and relevant twenty years later, and I still play it regularly.
Having reformed at last year’s Celtic Connections, L&M have been on tour and are bringing out a new album next year. Grant is joined by co-founder Paul McGeechan and ex-members Gordon Wilson and Douglas MacIntyre, with Ewen Vernal on bass, vocalist Monica Queen and Fraser Spiers on harmonica. It’s a tight band, the funk rock honed to perfection.
They kick off in fine style with “My Love Lives in a Dead House”, and Grant’s guitar work is fantastic on “Shape of Things to Come”. “Johnny’s Not Here” and “Winter” are impeccable. “Looking for Angeline” has me roaring along at the top of my voice too. In the second half, the gig drives towards a massive funk finish with numbers like “Up Escalator”, “Avalanche” and “Jocelyn Square”; much dancing did occur. The only slight mishit was “You’re Not The Only One”, performed as a duet with Queen; she has a lovely, lovely voice, but it doesn’t quite work for me.
However, what does work is “Lips Like Ether”, a song that would be on my Desert Island Discs list; how could anyone resist lyrics like, “You slipped into my bloodstream through a severed vein / anesthetized the pain in a heart of lead…”? It’s the most emotionally truthful love song I’ve ever encountered, and makes me yearn for an experience summed up in a line like “then you came and kicked down my door / and I saw you shining like a lighthouse on the shore.”
Of course, everything revolves around Grant and his perfect voice and his huge charisma (and ego). He’s a natural in front of an adoring audience, with a gallus Glesca curmudgeonliness: “I’ll buy you a drink,” someone shouts; “Well thank you,” he replies, “but it’s unlikely we’ll ever meet.” He could also do stand up or make a fortune out of after dinner speaking if he wanted to slum it; his stories of Dixie the whistling budgie and BB King’s ill-advised wardrobe choices are a hoot.
It’s late (1.45am) and I’ve just driven back from a long day in Edinburgh, so I know I’m not doing the gig justice; suffice to say it was a real see-your-heroes type of night that ranks as one of the best concerts of the year.
Tindersticks have been one of my favourite bands ever since their first album in the early 1990s. What appeals to me is my inability to pigeon hole their music – is it orchestral? Soul? Jazz? – which comes from their ability to surprise on every album.
Of course, a key to their success is Stuart Staples’ astonishing baritone. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it type of voice, but there’s no denying its distinctiveness. Legend has it that it was the model for Vic Reeves’ pub singer on “Shooting Stars”. I think it’s a fantastic voice, capable of intense emotion, which is why T’sticks are the authors of some of my favourite love songs, “My Oblivion” from 2003’s “Waiting for the Moon” being the stand out.
That album was the last made before the band split right down the middle, though, most notably marking the departure of arranger Dickon Hinchcliffe on violin. The group’s biggest asset is the soundscape they create, a transcendent wash of strings and keyboards. The last time I saw them was in 2002 at the same venue, and the noise they made was quite simply beautiful. I have to say, this time round, great though they are, they seem to miss everything that Hinchcliffe brought to the mix.
But they are great, and they showcase the new album, “Falling Down a Mountain”. It has a slightly rockier feel, especially songs like “Black Smoke”, “She Rode Me Down” (which has their trademark spaghetti Western mariachi feel) and “Harmony Around My Table” which meld well with classic T’sticks tracks like “Sometimes it Hurts”. However, Staples’ voice is made for tear-jerkers, and there are plenty of those, culminating in the sublime “All the Love”.
One thing: T’sticks are a classic analogue band, all warmth and depth and richness, and, as a result, they bring out everything on vinyl. If you have a half decent turntable, ignore the CDs and downloads and buy them on this format: it’s the way they are meant to be experienced. Besides, if you do buy “Falling Down a Mountain” on LP, you get a free download to play in the car anyway.