Civil Wars at the State Theatre, 11/9/11

The Civil Wars November 9, 2011 State Theatre

The Civil Wars walked out onto the stage of the State Theatre last night in absolute darkness, and when the lights came up, there stood the power duo: John Paul White and Joy Williams, dressed in a smart tux and a savvy little black dress, respectively. The unadorned stage allowed full attention to be directed to the two microphones centerstage, where White casually picked up his guitar and Williams stood, practically glowing with pleasure and excitement. There was little ceremony before the two opened with "Tip Of My Tongue," but nothing else was needed.

It's been a sort of whirlwind success for the folk-pop duo, who only met three years ago. Most who know the Civil Wars know them by their bittersweet ballad "Poison & Wine," which was featured on television show Grey's Anatomy--that was enough to push the band into the national spotlight.

"It was not even a year ago that John Paul and I played Sauce & Spirits [Soundbar, now Cause] for 80 people--and we thought that was a lot! This is unreal. It's so fancy in here!" exclaimed Williams, sharing a laugh with White and beaming out at the audience. "I put on the extra long lashes just for you tonight!"

"So did I," deadpanned White, tuning his guitar.

Civil Wars at the State Theatre, 11/9/11
Photo By Stacy Schwartz
Civil Wars at the State Theatre, 11/9/11
Photo By Stacy Schwartz

If Williams and White are still adjusting, you wouldn't know it by their live performance. The pair interact onstage as though they grew up singing beside one another, laughing at each other in between songs (and sometimes during songs), their musical chemistry coming through in every guitar line and elongated vowel.

If that wasn't enough, there's also Williams' voice--the kind of monster weapon that made me scribble down things like "I think angels are weeping" in my reporter's notebook, to my utter shame. (I share this with you now, reader, because it's still the best explanation.) Her voice was a versatile instrument, too--swelling to the top of folk-pop balladry on "Barton Hollow" and then reaching for an Appalachian sound on the bluegrassy "My Father's Father." These mixed styles are not mutually exclusive, and fortunately, the Civil Wars can get away with stylistic inconsistency on the grounds that their harmonies sound beautiful regardless of what they're singing.

"Somehow our music together created this sonic stew of whatever the Civil Wars is," smiled Williams after "Birds Of A Feather." "We don't even know what it is."

Whatever it is, it's working.

Civil Wars at the State Theatre, 11/9/11
Photo By Stacy Schwartz

Critic's bias: I knew I liked the Civil Wars for their talent, but I wasn't expecting them to be as good as they were live. I expected, honestly, something overtly sappy--in the annoying, not really heartfelt sort of way. I was happily proved wrong. The crowd: Adoring. Overheard in the crowd: "They are the cutest couple ever!" (White and Williams, in fact, are not in a relationship that goes beyond music and platonic friendship. They're each married to different people. Just to clarify.) Random notebook dump: I hate to dump openers Milo Greene in this section, but they deserve some mention here. Their performance was standout, and it won't be forever that they're touring as openers. A five-piece ensemble of multi-instrumentalists with expert vocal harmonies, this young L.A.-based band's energetic, orchestral performance captivated and won over the crowd last night. Setlist: Tip Of My Tongue Forget Me Not From This Valley 20 years I've Got This Friend My Father's Father Barton Hollow Falling C'est La Mort I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover) Oh Henry To Whom It May Concern Birds Of A Feather Disarm (Smashing Pumpkins cover) Poison & Wine - Billie Jean (Michael Jackson cover) Dance Me To The End Of Love (Leonard Cohen cover)

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