I once vowed to myself that I would never again see any kind of entertainment with the word "twilight" in the title. Thankfully, Civil Twilight has almost absolutely nothing to do with vampires (though three of their songs have appeared on The CW's "The Vampire Diaries," so not completely out of the woods).
What the Cape Town-based band provided late Sunday night on the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage was far better: a remarkably generous set of moody rock numbers that sent the sparse but receptive crowd home smiling until dawn.
The three-piece band from South Africa began to make waves in the alternative music scene with their 2009 self-titled first album. Several tracks of the album made their way into popular TV shows and movies, namely "Letters From The Sky," a broodingly triumphant anthem that appeared in last year's "I Am Number Four" and a trailer for HBO's "Big Love."
While Civil Twilight held off on playing their hit song until the encore, the rest of their hour-and-45-minute set was filled with equally soaring songs. At some moments, such as their opener, "River," Civil Twilight was reminiscent of a more conventional Radiohead. When lead singer Steven McKellar, who also played bass guitar and occasionally keyboard, launched into his breathless falsetto, one couldn't help but also hear Thom Yorke. That's not a bad thing.
McKellar jumped into his falsetto several times throughout the set, including on "Please Don't Find Me" and "Move/Stay," and each time, a listener could feel their soul flying. Combined with the echoing guitars and ethereal effects (lead guitarist Andrew McKellar often took a violin bow to his instrument), the crowd was put into an almost dreamlike trance.
Civil Twilight managed to create big, epic sound Sunday night, perhaps in some cases too big. Several times, such as "Move/Stay and "Sweet Resistance," the audio mix blasted the piano and guitars a bit too loud, muddling Steven McKellar's vocals. The result was a swampy wall of sound that hid the group's often-beautiful brooding melodies.
In most cases, however, Civil Twilight stayed on the right side of loud, creating sweeping sounds that enticed festival attendees who were originally making their way towards the Summerfest exit. "Every Walk That I've Taken Has Been In Your Direction" provided a pulsing rock rush that was very similar to a light version of U2 or Coldplay, and "Fire Escape" showcased a fun poppy vibe that added some variety to their heavier songs.
The band's endearingly modest stage presence also helped the almost two hour concert fly by pleasantly. In between numbers, Steven McKellar graciously thanked the crowd for sticking around and even talked about the Euro Cup final match played previously that day. Unfortunately, he was rooting for the eventual loser. He also had the line of the evening, responding to a fan's loud request for "Uno mas por favor" with "I don't know any Spanish."
The attendance was disappointingly more typical of an afternoon concert than a showcase act (perhaps others were wary of the 'twilight' in their name). Luckily, Civil Twilight performed with the same energy and effort as with a sell-out. Their name may not be big yet, but their sound certainly is.
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