At a time when U2 and Muse are touring the world in major arenas, it’s lucky for fans of anthemic alternative rock that you can catch Civil Twilight at a venue the size of Northern Virginia’s Jammin’ Java, with a capacity of about 200. That’s where the group performed last week (Tuesday, July 21) to a small but enamored crowd.
The foursome – brothers Steven (vocals/bass) and Andrew (guitar) McKellar, Richard Wouters (drums) and Kevin Dailey (keyboard/guitar) – are often compared to the previously mentioned bands, largely due to Steven’s impassioned, Bono-like vocals; pounding, martial drums; and tightly structured songs that explore big emotions. That fact that the Cape Town, South Africa-born quartet haven’t achieved greater success after three fine studio albums—a self-titled 2010 debut, Holy Weather (2012) and this year’s brand new Story of an Immigrant – is a surprise to all Civil Twilight fans, and perhaps to the band itself.
The charismatic frontman acknowledged this in a mid-set story about arriving at the venue and asking himself a variation on “WTF?” in seeing its location – in a bland suburban strip mall – for the first time. The audience, laughed, as did he, willing to accept the fact that a good show is a good show, wherever it takes place. And while the locale is uninspiring, Jammin Java’s interior, operations and audience are among the area’s most supportive of live acts, which McKellar also recognized as he led the band in a no-holds-barred performance, accepting a whiskey from the bar along the way.
Having toured as headliners since 2012, with experience at major festivals like Austin City Limits, Bumbershoot and Bonnaroo and as support for Florence + the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, and Jimmy Eat World, among others, Civil Twilight knows how to structure a compelling set. (Here’s the full set list.)
The night opened with “When, When,” a song from the new album, which floats with a buoyant rhythm often associated with South African music. But a more traditional classic guitar rock sound is where Civil Twilight excels, sometimes building up from delicate, often narrative verses to full-on wailing jams, as in in the third song, “Soldier” (from the band’s debut) and notably, “Please Don’t Find Me” (from Holy Weather) that began as a slow-burning blues before turning up the heat and volume in a bracing coda.
Two of the group’s most popular songs, both from the debut album, were saved for the sort-of-encore. (Steven told the crowd that he didn’t care for the tradition of leaving the stage and being coaxed back.) After Wouters and Dailey left the stage, the McKellar brothers stayed behind for a haunting piano (Steven) and e-bow guitar (Andrew) version of the ballad “Human.” The full-line-up reunited for a blow-out version of the band’s biggest hit to date, “Letters from the Sky.”
Now based in the U.S., Civil Twilight has concert dates coming up statewide through late October. As Story of an Immigrant gains attention, it’s a great time to see the band live. Chances are, the next time they come around your town, it’s going to be in a much larger space.