A little over a week ago, Joy Williams and John Paul White, collectively known as The Civil Wars, performed to yet ANOTHER sold out crowd, this time at Vienna’s Jammin Java. It’s becoming a common thing for them lately. With a sound that attempts to subvert the pop sensibilities of bands like Allison Krauss and Union Station or The Swell Season as much as it seeks to honor them, The Civil Wars are something entirely their own. The easy way out would be to describe their music as sort of a Gothic take on folk music, but that would be selling the duo short. It keeps being repeated that there is some sort of magic going on between Williams and White, and after seeing it for myself firsthand, I can’t help but repeat it again:
There is some sort of magic going on here.
Going in to this show I knew that I was going to love what this band did live. You can’t put out a record as solid, as intimate as Barton Hollow and NOT be great at what you do. In my mind this was to be a very solemn yet beautifully performed set…much like the album. And I definitely got my beautifully performed set. But instead of the solemn affair that I was SURE I was in for, The Civil Wars delivered a set that was full of humor, warmth and, I kid you not, Michael Jackson.
I could walk you through the show but I think that would be missing the point. Sure, the chemistry between the two during “Forget Me Not” was electric, but that chemistry has been discussed ad infinitum. Their tear down of “You Are My Sunshine” into some sort of gothic death dirge sent chills down the spines of every person in that audience. That happened. I could tell you how, if you looked closely, you’d swear that Joy Williams wiped away a tear after “To Whom It May Concern.” That (might) have) happened too. Finally I could even tell you how their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (not to mention Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” earlier in the set) not only took the crowd by surprise, but surprised everyone by how the song seemed to fit the band like a glove.* You would think that I could break this whole thing down and analyze it until it you know EXACTLY what this night was about, but the reality of the situation is that you can’t explain a night with The Civil Wars any more than you can explain magic.
To be clear, we’re not talking the kind of wand waving, sparkly, explody magic that you’ll see this summer in the last Harry Potter. That kind of magic is fun too, but it’s not real. No, the kind of magic that we’re talking about is the kind that happens when a person (in this case two) takes what’s inside, way deep down inside, and lets it out for you to see, consequences be damned. The kind of magic we’re talking about is as old as human existence and as recent as June and Johnny (yes THAT June and Johnny). It doesn’t happen every day. In fact it hardly ever happens anymore. But Saturday night The Civil Wars proved that it absolutely still exists and, hopefully, they’re going to be proving it again and again for a long time to come.
A few final thoughts.
1)During “Birds Of A Feather” White’s guitar strap came undone, and of course Williams was right there to help him out…right as they sing the words “Who could do without you?” What for most bands would, quite honestly, come off as completely staged instead came off as a completely “of COURSE that’s how this would happen to The Civil Wars” moment. Like I said, MAGIC.
2)There was some banter right before they played “Fallen” and I swear that I heard Williams say that it was the first song they wrote together. If that’s the case then let me respond by saying MAGIC….and I hate you guys…seriously…after all the love, nothing but hate…I’m serious.
1. Tip Of My Tongue
2. Forget Me Not
3. No Ordinary Love
4. 20 Years
5.You Are My Sunshine
6. I’ve got A Friend
7. Girl With The Red Ballon
8. Barton Hollow
10. C’est La Mort
11. To Whom It May Concern
12. Birds Of A Feather
13. O Henry
14. Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins)
15. My Fathers Father
16. Poison Wine
1. Billie Jean ( Michael Jackson)
2. Dance Me To The End Of Love (Leonard Cohen)
*too bad a pun to leave out