Donnelly: The Civil Wars @ Liberty Hall in Lawrence, January 17, 2012

“I don’t really know how this thing even works, we’re such polar opposites,” said Joy Williams midway through the band’s sold-out Liberty Hall performance.  

She was referring to band mate, guitarist and vocalist John Paul White, the other half of Grammy nominated, The Civil Wars.  White wore a sloppy tuxedo and resembled a less-gaunt Johnny Depp.

“Yeah, I’m an asshole,” White cooed sarcastically, thrumming his acoustic strings lightly. 

“Well, if the shoe fits…” Williams shot back at him with a smirk.

The crowd laughed for probably the 10th time at the give and take between the two musicians.  Along with their impeccable musicianship – which included intricate and hushed harmonies splashed over mostly finger style folk guitar – the stage presence and banter of this relatively young duo kept the audience focused and straining to catch each and every one liner dropped, every barb exchanged…. 

So gracefully and naturally did they inhabit the spotlight, if they weren’t doing what they now do, there’s no doubt Williams and White would be onstage in some other capacity, with spectators craning their necks to get a look.  It also doesn’t hurt that they’re both very attractive. 

And so it went all night, with each performer affectionately ribbing the other, and slinging lines of love and heartache in one another’s general direction. 

Over the course of the hour plus set, the duo played selections mostly off their critically acclaimed debut album, Barton Hollow. It’s made up of soft, slow ballads, along with a few covers that have been part of their set for a while. 

The Civil Wars’ musical bread and butter is in their attention to detail. 

Let’s face it, at first glance the songs they play are simple, four chord, down-tempo numbers with an acoustic guitar and two singers.  But White and Williams dress the tunes up nicely with almost perfect harmonies that are prominently and constantly featured.  

Most noticeable vocally was the mirror image enunciation that the two singers possess.  The precision of every attack and the crispness of every release transformed the two voices into one indistinguishable swell.   While it’s one thing to pull off such a stunt on a studio album, it’s a whole different trick to match it at a live performance.

The duo started strong and kept the momentum going with standouts such as To Whom It May Concern, Poison & Wine, and Forget Me Not, before launching into perhaps the best received song of the night, the more up tempo and rollicking Barton Hollow.  The song harkens back to White’s days growing up in Alabama, and feels like a southern porch song played through a Nashville speaker.

It was one of the two best songs of the night for me. 

As is the norm at shows that feature quiet performers, sprinkled throughout the crowd were the usual jerks that can’t resist loudly talking through the intimate moments.  They were cast nasty looks and angrily hissed at, but the band didn’t seem too concerned.  They repeatedly thanked the packed house and professed their love for Lawrence.

The other highlight was the sad and sentimental, I’ve Got This Friend, a tale of isolation and lost time, that finishes as many of their songs do, with a heartfelt harmony chorus.  After the final note sounded, one guy shouted out, “Anybody else cry?”

A few audience members chuckled knowingly.   

But it wasn’t all witty banter and dabbing eyes.  There were a few unsuccessful moments, particularly the covers of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm, and the Michael Jackson classic, Billie Jean.  Billie Jean actually drew some laughter from the crowd in its first few bars, before the band made clear that this was not a tongue-in-cheek pick.  And Disarm was barely identifiable as a Pumpkin’s song to anyone but the most devoted Corgan-lovers. 

Both selections just felt a little forced, as if they were chosen by the performers to say, “See how diverse our tastes are?”

But even if The Civil Wars’ tastes are diverse, their performances are really not.  Don’t get me wrong, they do their thing very, very well.  But it’s kind of one note, and when they try to jam square songs into their round hole it leaves something to be desired.  They’d be better off mining more adaptable classics, like they’ve done with Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love.

Be that as it may, Williams and White know who they are musically, and their one thing is working tremendously for them at the moment.  Maybe on the next record they’ll incorporate some other elements to compliment the great pieces they already have in place. 

Or maybe they’ll cross over to death metal. 

“You guys can start moshing at any point,” cracked White at one point.  “You know, slam-dancing?”

He flicked his right hand across the sound hole, plucking individual strings in a minor chord. 

“Settle down, guys.”

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One Response to Donnelly: The Civil Wars @ Liberty Hall in Lawrence, January 17, 2012

  1. smartbag says:

    STFU!
    I still don’t get people who go to these very quiet shows and talk all through the songs. I was at this show and it was kind of ridiculous. Several people were even talking on their cell phones up near the front but the band played it cool and didn’t call them out like I’ve seen others do.

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