Monday, November 21, 2011

The Civil Wars concert review: LA

A version of my review originally appeared at

“This is our one and only happy song,” said The Civil Wars’ singer/pianist Joy Williams, half-seriously, before fellow singer and guitarist John Paul White started the sprightly acoustic strum of “I’ve Got This Friend” at the Wiltern Theatre.

The Tennessee-based Americana duo specializes in haunting, folk-tinged music and achingly beautiful vocals that recall Robert Plant & Alison Krauss or the Swell Season. Lyrically, the tunes on debut effort Barton Hollow - among the year’s most enthralling albums - tend to revolve around conflicts between male and female perspectives, work, addiction and God (hence The Civil Wars moniker). 

Over the past year, the pair has gone from playing small SoCal rooms ( Largo at the Coronet, Hotel Café) to selling out the much larger Wiltern. That boost in popularity came courtesy of a high profile TV placement in Grey’s Anatomy, celebrity support via tweets and blogs (Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, David Archuleta and Adele; they opened for the latter on tour), radio airplay (KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic), plus Country Music Association and Country Music Television award nominations.

Last spring, Hollow debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 chart and notched a No. 1 digital tally. So far, it has moved 200,000 copies, with one report of digital downloads matching that total. 

Live in Los Angeles on Saturday , the pair was totally captivating. “Tip of My Tongue,” from the 2009 Poison & Wine EP, opened the 75-minute, 17-song set, during which the bulk of Hollow was performed. Most fans were reverent for the quiet acoustic guitar and piano-based numbers, yet clapped along for the upbeat, swampy electrified title track. White proclaimed them “honorary rednecks – in a good way” afterward. 

Williams (once a Dove Award-nominated, Christian pop artist) completely inhabited the songs onstage, gesturing along to every melodic nuance. Ebb and flow harmonies on “20 Years,” “C’est La Mort” and “To Whom it May Concern,” not to mention a sincere hushed vocal delivery on “My Father’s Father” - where Williams gradually backed away from the microphone, proved breathtaking. 

Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” became slow and intricate in The Civil Wars’ hands. The Civil Wars single “Poison & Wine” had a dramatic buildup and was a perfect example of the longtime songwriters’ talents. Williams’ playful and sexy nature was hinted at earlier, but really came to the fore amid a somber encore take on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”

They capped the evening off with an exquisite version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance with Me to the End of Love,” also heard on their popular “Live from Eddie’s Attic” digital concert release. Here's hoping they venture further out to play Orange County - the Coach House would be a perfect venue - in 2012.

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