The Civil Wars have come again but this time, the battles were on the fields of love and in the trenches of American popular music and North and South were united, as Californian Joy Williams and Alabamian John Paul White combined to create some of the sweetest harmonies and modern takes on folk music on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.
Formed after a chance encounter at a music industry event two and a half years ago, the Nashville-based duo released their debut full-length record Barton Hollow in February and in its first week on the charts the album was the number one download on iTunes. That popularity translated to three sold-out Minneapolis shows for The Civil Wars on Sunday and Monday: a mid-day affair at the Varsity Theater, and then two intimate stands at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, where they showed off just how much fun getting along can be.
Taking the stage at the BLB on Sunday night, Williams beamed out to the eager crowd, exclaiming, "This seems like a really awesome living room!" To which White deadpanned, "Yeah, except it's really dark and I can't see anyone." They then kicked off the set with "Tip of My Tongue," a torch song from their Poison & Wine EP with minor-key guitar picking and a smoky café feel, a sultry and seductive way to start the evening. "Forget Me Not" followed, which on the Barton Hollow record has a full country band backing it, but live, was carried by the showmanship of the duo—not only the impressive sustained harmonies but also by their playfulness. Williams tapped out a rhythmic break on White's guitar while White rolled his eyes and after drawing out the last note for an eternity, when Williams broke first, White took a victory lap as Williams pouted. "I got him at the first show," she said by way of consolation to her self, starting off a quick-paced bickering session.
One of the next highlight of the show was their terrific cover of "You Are My Sunshine," usually sung as a sweet chorus "with a grandmother or mother," Williams noted, but in fact is incredibly dark. White said that they "consider it a public service announcement to let you know how sad this song is," before launching into their hair-raising and heart-rending version of the tune, with Williams doubling herself over to squeeze out the choking lyrics about the fear of losing love. Some of their patter may be practiced—Williams' introduction to "Barton Hollow" ("Do you mind if we get a little rowdy? We're going to bring you to the South, to Alabama to be precise, to Barton Hollow to be more precise") felt unchanged from their sets at SXSW—but the reaction to that tune was raucous cheering from the crowd and the BLB shook with the hand-clapping and foot-stomping of the crowd.
After covering the Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm," apparently one of the few songs that Williams and White share from their disparate musical upbringings, they closed out their set with the tender "Poison & Wine," a song that White noted "found us." The movement from hushed to open-throated in the chorus of "I don't love you, I always will" resonated throughout the room, a contradiction of life perfectly encapsulated in a song lyric. As soon as the duo left the stage, the crowd were on their feet chanting for an encore and when they emerged a moment later, White grinned, "That's the first time I've ever been scared not to do an encore. Our manager was back there, like ‘Get the hell out there, or they'll come and find you.'" To which someone in the crowd yelled back, "It's a small place"—which is one of the charms of the BLB, to be sure. The Civil Wars then closed it out with two more audacious covers, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," with Williams vamping to the hilt, and Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love", in a performance that stacked up well against the substantial canon of other covers of that tune.
With a cheers again to the audience and some final bemused giggles, Williams and White left the stage after a solid hour of beautiful music and hilarious banter. That kind of easy and comfortable chemistry sets The Civil Wars apart from other duos and makes them such an energetic and disarming couple. But despite their giddiness together, both musicians are seasoned professionals—Williams has sold over 250,000 copies of her solo material—as well as married to other people. Hey, at one point though, so were Johnny Cash and June Carter, and we all know how that story turned out.
Tip of My Tongue
Forget Me Not
From This Valley
You Are My Sunshine
I've Got This Friend
Girl with the Red Balloon
C'est la mort
I Want You Back
Birds of a Feather
Poison & Wine
Dance Me to the End of Love
©2011 Carl Atiya Swanson (text) and Stacy Schwartz (photos)
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