With voices blending in a way that suggest the mystical magic of the Everly Brothers or Simon and Garfunkel, Joy Williams and John Paul White take a live show into territory that is magnetic and memorable. For their one night in Indianapolis, their spiritual folk music mesmerized a sweaty midwest audience on the second floor of an old church.
The duo, dubbed The Civil Wars, showed why they have earned the accolades that have come their way in the past year, showcasing harmonies and songwriting Friday night (7.1.11) at a sold out Earth House show. The singer/songwriters may never have to play small rooms again – unless they want to – and the Indy concert should be one that fans at the show remember long after the two graduate to bigger venues.
Playing nine of the 12 songs from their debut Barton Hallow album, they transfixed an audience crammed into the historic building, amping up the quiet songs just enough to give the live versions immediacy and energy, while sacrificing little of the emotion found on the literate, gliding album.
Walking onstage and launching into “Tip of My Tongue” and “Forget Me Not”, the two set the tone for the rest of the evening: Williams’ voice atop White’s delicate-yet-driving guitar, with his vocals providing a rootsy bottom to the harmonies. Williams sang both on the microphone and also would back away, sharing with the audience the organic aura of her powerful voice, carried with lovely unamplified strength.
White, beginning the night in a black jacket and pants, completed by a bowtie (playfully straightened by his partner at the end of the second song), and Williams in a sexy and simple black dress, hit one of the show’s highlights early, with “From This Valley”, a full-on gospel song not found on the album. The “pray, pray pray” refrain hinted at his southern roots and the accapella breakdown in the middle of the tune was the first of the evening’s many goosebump moments.
“20 Years” was mesmerizing, and “I Have This Friend” was introduced by Williams as the “one happy song on the record”, though they ultimately found light in the eight other selections played from their album. The pair finds positive moments in songs that, in other hands, might prove dour. Kudos to the standing-room audience for resisting chatting during the entire 75-minute set. They came to hear the American beauty of the music, and were rewarded.
Williams played a small squeeze box during the waltzing and odd-yet-epic “Girl with the Red Balloon” before they hit the album’s swampy title cut, the only rock tune on the Barton Hallow record. By this time, White had dispensed with the bow tie amidst the heat of 300 bodies in a room cooled only by a few box and ceiling fans.
The song “Falling” began with White playing the notes with his eyes closed, and the song’s nifty hook leading into the chorus made the version another highlight, aided by his emphatic strumming.
“C’est La Mort” was hampered by a muddy piano sound – no fault of Williams’ playing, before an almost unrecognizably slow version of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” brought the crowd back into the show, thanks to Williams’ Emmylou Harris echoes.
A four-song run to the end of the set began with “Birds of a Feather”, and eminated a Stevie Nicks vibe, assisted by Joy’s hip-swaying dancing. She then told the story of how the two songwriters formed the duo, melding completely different influences (happily noting White even had some “death metal” in his background). She revealed they found common ground with the Smashing Pumpkins, and they performed a beautiful verison of “Disarm”, as Williams held the ends of her long brunette hair, sexily twirling it with her fingers as she eased towards song’s close.
“My Father’s Father” and a build-to-a-lovely-crescendo version of “Poison & Wine” ended the regular set, with the mixed audience of teens, couples, and 40 and 50-something’s joyfully stomping their feet in unison to bring the two back for on encore.
Another Michael Jackson tune, “Billie Jean”, has become a staple of their live shows – for good reason. The Indianapolis version embodied all that The Civil War represent – an understanding of musical history, playfulness, vocal earthiness, and an ability to make any song their own. A closing Leonard Cohen-penned “Dance Me to the End of Love” proved most powerful when both singers stepped back, harmonizing much as they must have when first meeting at that songwriters night a little more than two years ago.
The pair’s new career is one that would seem to be full of promise – they write their own material – and can fly as high as they might want it to go. Nothing is as magical as two voices joining as if born to be together. For Joy Williams and John Paul White, they seem to know they are lucky to have stumbled onto each other, and have smartly decided to take their simple show – two people, a guitar and a bit of piano – across the country, sharing the gift that they have found.
VIDEO: From Indianapolis/Earth House