The Staves @ Hackney Empire 12th Feb 2015

Sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor are well known for their gorgeous folk infused harmonies – their 2012 debut album Dead & Born & Grown is built around their voices, supported by mostly acoustic guitar and some accompanying harmonicas and percussion.

If their recent output is anything to go by, sophomore album If I Was (due for release this March) will hail something of a departure from their folk roots. Which is interesting, since it’s being produced by king-of-folk Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Their sold out show at Hackney Empire is an opportunity for them to showcase their newly expanded sound, the bulk of their set consisting of material from the album they’ve been working on ensconced in Justin Vernon’s delightfully cosy April Base studio in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

They open with Blood I Bled, the title track from their 2014 EP, and manage to switch effortlessly from heartfelt music-to-get-lost-in to playful mid-tour-slump siblings’ banter in between songs. At one point, on the subject of being on the road with her sisters, Jess describes herself as an ‘inescapable bell-end’ which sparks a ridiculous but endearing conversation about the title of their next album.

There’s a smattering of old songs throughout the set, the first of these being the fourth song of the night, Mexico – the perfect example of the acoustic intricacy that Dead & Born & Grown has to offer. This is followed shortly after with their latest single, Black and White. It’s a song about being ‘jolly angry’- twee phrasing, perhaps, but its content anything but that. This is the first of their new songs on which we get to see The Staves in all their shining new glory – they’ve got all sassy (see video below) and the blues guitar which comes in and complements the kick in their voices gives the track its edge.

The next track, No Me No You No More, adapted from a traditional folk song and led vocally by Jess, rather than being fierce and confident is completely and utterly heartbreaking – giving me goosebumps all over and almost bringing me to tears (and I suspect I’m not alone in this; many of the people around me bring a subtle sleeve to their eyes once it’s over). Eagle Song is where their time spent touring in America really shines through as an influential force on the music – they cite it as such and you can hear the yearning for the States in the expanded Americana sound brought out by three additional members of the band on bass, drums and keys.

Damn It All and Teeth White are again suitably sassy, with lyrics like ‘I got my teeth white and my jeans tight’ – but between these two songs towards the end of the set, The Staves introduce to the stage ‘a close friend’ (who just happens to be in London) to play album track Make It Holy with them. It’s with surprise and delight that the audience receive Justin Vernon, whose friendship with the band blossomed over the recording process. He scuttles to the front of the stage where a mic waits for him between the sisters, and his voice provides a beautiful male counterpart to those of The Staves. He’s gone as quickly as he came, hugging each Staveley-Taylor before retreating back into the wings, but leaves a lasting impression.

They finish with the classic Winter Trees, with refreshed vivacity. The encore is also made up of older and more familiar material; Facing West from their 2013 EP, and lastly the iconic Wisely and Slow, for which they all sing into one mic and Jess provides the simple accompaniment on acoustic guitar. They split off back to their own mics for the second part of the song and end with a final burst of energy, bringing the rest of the band back on for a much deserved group bow.

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