Based upon the vast, infectiously exuberant crowd queued up outside Chicago’s Vic Theatre, you would have thought that a veteran act with an obsessively loyal fan base, say a Wilco, a Portishead or an Interpol, was getting ready to take the stage. While going through the security checkpoint, concertgoers discussed how fortunate they felt to score tickets to the much anticipated, sold-out show. Once inside, fans wriggled about, jostling to claim the prime spots near the stage with an unobstructed view. The act that brought such a large crowd of admirers together on a Sunday night was not, in fact, an established, household-name band, but rather musical partners John Paul White and Joy Williams. With just an acoustic guitar, two beatific voices, and the magic of musical chemistry, The Civil Wars set Chicago on fire.
I must admit that I was skeptical at first of the crowd’s theatrical enthusiasm for the duo. Barton Hollow, their debut LP, is a fine collection of sparsely textured folk tunes reminiscent of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s much lauded 2007 collaboration Raising Sand. While I have enjoyed this subtle, quiet album since its February release, I have questioned whether the group’s sudden popularity is more the product of an illusive hype machine than substantiated talent. After all, it was the inclusion of the Civil Wars song “Poison & Wine” in a key montage during a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode and an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” that sent thousands of people to check out Barton Hollow. The record became the #1 downloaded album on iTunes upon its initial release.
From the first notes of concert opener “Tip of My Tongue,” I began to understand what all this fuss about the Civil Wars is about. As White established the song’s unassuming groove with his rhythmic, thumb-picked guitar style, Williams’ soaring, ethereal voice reached out to the very back of the theatre. On the chorus, Williams and White’s voices merged in impeccably executed harmony. It became clear that the duo’s power rests upon their ability to blend their distinctive personalities into one unified whole. It’s no wonder that they call themselves The Civil Wars. If one phrase could sum up the group’s primary thematic concern, it would be the cliché, yet all-too-often-true, phrase “love is a battlefield.” White and Williams expertly enacted on stage the beautifully violent drama of their lyrics about the simultaneous pleasures and pains of human relationships. It’s notoriously impossible to define that overused phrase “stage presence,” but this duo has it. Williams’ passionately subtle hand gestures and facial expressions reinforced every bittersweet word. White and Williams moved freely about the stage, coming apart and then pulling together, engaging in a uniquely playful, at times almost erotic, dance, that is all their own.
After the initial shock of the pair’s unrelenting chemistry, I wondered how the duo would maintain their frighteningly elevated energy level throughout the entire show. Much to the audience’s delight, they did. In a little over an hour, the band played a majority of the songs from Barton Hollow. Before launching into fan favorite “I’ve Got This Friend,” Williams explained that the tune is probably the only positive song the group would perform that night. The duo kept their between-song banter light, fun, and to the point. They frequently voiced gratitude to the dynamic crowd and expressed their continual surprise at their own success. White spoke of playing the Vic a while back as an opening act to an unappreciative crowd, which led him to ponder leaving the music business. Williams pointed out that when the duo played Schubas, a smaller Chicago venue, earlier in the year, nobody expected that they would soon play to a sold-out crowd at the Vic.
One of the ways the duo maintained such an impressive audience connection is through several creative, fun cover songs. At one point, Williams explained that they would perform a song by a beloved Chicago band. White jokingly launched into the intro from Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park.” The crowd laughed and cheered before the duo performed a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Disarm” by Smashing Pumpkins. After “Poison & Wine,” the band’s most popular tune, the set proper ended. However, the duo came back for a two-song encore consisting of a lively cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and a melancholy version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
Exiting the theatre, having just witnessed a miraculous musical pairing, I thought of “I’ve Got This Friend,” probably the concert highlight in an evening of many high points. The song is about the feeling that most of us hold in the back of our hearts, that someday we will find that person we are looking for, one who will make us better than we could ever be on our own. The key line of the tune is “if the right one came along.” Clearly, for Joy Williams and John Paul White, the right one has come along, artistically speaking. Those who love genuinely sincere music are eternally grateful.
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