Calming the stage during Chicago’s thundering Tuesday night was Watford, England bred trio The Staves, female folk’s most promising act this year. Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor are sisters with more than just the average sibling bond. They grew up with musical parents and into many friendships with musicians, paving a natural progression toward their own performances and productions.
In their early days, the Staveley-Taylor sisters learned covers by replacing instrumental parts with their voices. In an interview with Speakers In Code, Emily notes that they “always feel most at home singing with no accompaniment.” Their attempt to create musical depth without instruments is still a driving force in their arrangements today—three or so years after they began singing at local open mic nights without formal intentions of starting a band. A string of gigs incidentally arose before they even realized they were gigging—in this respect, their stage presence is as natural as their relation to each other and to the music they sing.
As they took the stage at Schubas Tavern, a popular and modest indie/acoustic venue on Chicago’s northside, the sold out crowd tamely responded to the effervescent presence that their smiles radiated. Charming English banter scattered throughout the set as they mulled over the theme song to England’s 1980s cereal cartoon, underwater crime-fighters Sharkey and George, and giggled to each other over “jolly good,” “mate” and the adorably English pronunciation of “bottle”=“boh-ull.”
The Staves built their performance on warm, looping folk riffs and three part vocal harmonies. According to the sisters, their collaborative existence is where the quality really roots itself. Individually, Emily, Jessica and Camilla have very different voices: High and low pitches are carefully designated depending on the mood of each song. Jessica led with acoustic picking for most of the set and Camilla joined with electric and ukulele. About halfway through the late hour, two percussionists joined for a fuller, folk medley projection. Their voices, however, remained the stars of the show. As they sing, wavering away from and back towards the mics, clarity assures us that in this night, their voices have become extensions of themselves.
With clear influences from the era of Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Staves thoughtfully sang about love, dreamy notions of exploration and the guilt-free pleasure of returning home. It is music written to ease the pain of a longtime love driving away, which might explain the large number of solitary men in the audience. They whistled the story of a defeatist’s last plea in “Facing West” and graced us with SXSW standout “Mexico.”
As a tribute to their first headline date in Chicago, The Staves chose a delightfully fit cover to begin their encore with. Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” through the arrangements of these ladies was tempered and devoutly remade, and a beautiful surprise for the Midwestern crowd of Sufjan lovers. However the best part of the gig came when all instruments were set down for the showcase a capella “Wisely and Slowly.” “Tender woman mourns a man/Sits in silent sorrow with a bottle in her hand/Tell me all you need to tell/Why is it you whisper when you really need to yell/Troubles in tow, go wisely and slow.” Each belted harmony brought that rare, pure smile to the intently listening crowd of faces. The therapeutic beauty in harmonic, human (im)perfection was never more evident than in the calm, grateful moods of the audience filing back out into the storm.