Their music is solemn, their stage presence is august and their appearance is understated. They’re not talkers. It is their voices and their musical talents that are on stage at McHugh’s Basement bar tonight, and deservedly so. Their harmonies are magnificent, and absolutely syncronised. Perhaps it is the “blood harmony”, the family bond, but more likely it is down to the hours of practice and hard work that they put into their recently-chosen profession.
Lily & Madeleine are topping off a night of very high quality female musicians and singers. Opened by Gaze Is Ghost (a.k.a. Laura McGarrigle, an artist from the wild borderlands of Northern Ireland), and followed by current tour-mate Shannon Hayden, they complement each other very well. Gaze Is Ghost layers delicate piano notes over looped howls of her own creation. There’s a Celtic sound there; you can very well imagine the primeval highlands of Scotland would be a suitable location for her music. It is dark and earthy and her voice is so quiet at times that you can’t hear what she’s saying.
Her stand-out song is the one she closes her set with: Invisible Cities. Shannon Hayden, a musician from the Midwest of America, like the Jurkiewicz sisters, lets her instrument do much of the communication. For this set it is an electric ‘cello: a stringed beam of wood plugged into a veritable Wurlitzer of a pedal board. Later she will play it and the mandolin for Lily & Madeleine. Hayden’s music is a careful layering of pre-recorded tracks and loops, over which her ‘cello dominates. Her sound is a mixture of almost classical ‘cello with African percussive beats and a sparse, haunting vocal, and it captivates the modest crowd in McHugh’s.
After just a brief break Lily and Madeleine take to the stage, with Hayden taking the role of support musician. Madeleine introduces herself, and Lily states her name only; she won’t speak again until the encore. In many, the quietness between songs and lack of anecdotes would imply nervousness or lack of practiced showmanship, but that is not something that comes across with these sisters. They’re simply there to play. They are good, they are on point, there is no frantic tuning of guitars between songs. Their on-stage confidence belies their young ages. From Madeleine We briefly learn about the sisters’ month-long tour, which heads back to America later this week. She shares her impatience to get back to her cats, and the fact that they missed Thanksgiving due to touring. But that is enough with the distractions, back to the music.
It is hard to get away from comparisons with the Soderberg sisters of First Aid Kit. The similarities are too obvious: young singing sisters with perfect harmonies; one plays the guitar whilst the other is on keys; songs that mention rabbits and wolves and rivers and forests, with music videos set amongst rabbits and wolves and rivers and forests. Lily & Madeleine are now at the point where Klara & Johanna stood three years ago, but they haven’t had the help of Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst to get where they are. In fact, exactly three years ago I was standing in Bush Hall in London, listening to First Aid Kit blow my mind. A week ago, Lily & Madeleine were standing in the same venue, blowing the minds of other lucky folks in my place. To some degree FAK have paved the way into the mainstream for Lily & Madeleine; let us hope that they too will be headlining major festivals and taking on world tours soon… there is no difference in quality.
The sisters take us through a musical biography, picking tracks from all three of their major releases, and showing no particular preference for their most recent album, Fumes. By a curious chance, or perhaps by design, they open with the first track — In The Middle — of their first release, and close their set with the final track of their most recent release — Blue Blades. This latter song is really strengthened by the addition of Hayden’s ‘cello, making it very close to the recording of the lazy cinematic closer of Fumes. It is touching, throughout, that Lily and Madeleine’s voices synchronise so well, but there is no on-stage communication between the two. Madeleine’s gaze often lingers on the back of her younger sister’s figure, standing at the forefront of the stage, as if reading everything she needs to know from her profile or the set of her shoulders. The beautiful harmonies are not the only selling-point of the vocals. Lily’s voice is rich and dark, whereas Madeleine’s is light, delicate and clear.
It is no surprise to most that when the last notes of Blue Blades fade, the audience call for one more song. No surprise to all but the sisters, who shyly hesitate before picking their way back to the stage. They switch their standard places, Lily standing behind the keyboard and Madeleine moving to the front of the stage, before they break into the softly undulating ballad, Sea of Love. “Come with me, my love, to the sea, the sea of love”. Fairly apt, as they will cross the sea tomorrow to travel to Oslo and Stockholm, and from there, home to Illinois and their family, taking the musical affections of hundreds of new fans with them. Paul Woods, GiggingNI.com