If an unknowing, blind observer had walked into the Bottleneck on Friday, April 22, he may have sensed that he was in the presence of a church congregation more so than a sold out concert at a small, seedy bar. As The Civil Wars played, the audience stood in nearly utter silence, allowing the somber tone that flowed out of Joy Williams and John Paul White to be the only sounds echoing from the walls. The silence would have been awkwardly deafening had anyone noticed it. The crowd seemed so entranced with the music they were experiencing that they seemed intent upon mentally capturing as much of the performances as they could. Almost as though, they were attempting to record the evening in their recollections so they could remain for as long as their memories would allow.
The simplicity of The Civil Wars show was emphasized by the sparseness of their “band”. By sparseness, what I really mean is a complete lack thereof. Occasionally, Joy would sit down behind a keyboard to add another layer to a piece and during, “The Girl with the Red Balloon” she even picked up an accordion, but this was a rarity. The majority of the songs were complemented with nothing more than hauntingly blended vocal melodies and a deceptively uncomplicated guitar played by John Paul.
Not a moment of their set felt forced. The natural presence that both John Paul and Joy had on stage together made it difficult to tell if this was merely a working relationship or a life long love affair. Towards the beginning of the set, Joy even took a moment to clean John Paul up, pulling a few stray hairs off of his coat, primping his long frizzy locks, straightening his bow tie. While it would be naïve to think that it wasn’t, in part, done for the show, I couldn’t help but notice the authenticity between the two of them. More than once, they took a moment to discuss how they first met, how they wrote their first song, and how they felt about one another. They spoke in the same way that a married couple of 50 years recalls their first dance or kiss. This love affair may not be a romantic one, but the connection that has been formed through their music is undeniable. It may not be easily described by words, but it is almost mystical in its flawlessness. Any attempt to examine it more would only begin to explain away the magic that occurs when watching these two on stage.
While the majority of their songs linger around the melancholy (during the intro for “I’ve Got This Friend” John Paul announced that all dancing should be done now because it was their only happy song), it is not to say that the show brought anybody “down”. Sure, the music might be predominately pensive, but the bliss that was felt on stage transcended into the audience. Any passion that is felt that intensely by someone is bound to influence anyone surrounding the area. Even as they covered possibly the most depressing version of “You Are My Sunshine” ever known to man, their ardor for the song was apparent. Normally a song that only has significance for proud parents at their child’s first recital, The Civil Wars managed to give it a depth and revive the song in ways that could never previously have been imagined.
A few words should also be deservingly said about The Civil Wars opener, Arum Rae of White Dress. Where The Civil Wars, at least, had one another on an otherwise vacant set, Arum walked onto stage with nothing more than a whiskey and an electric guitar. A tinge of nervousness could be felt as she rambled on about one song to the next, but the sultry growl of her vocals accompanied by the bluesy riffs that rumbled out her guitar captivated the audience from the moment that the first notes were played. Obviously inspired as much by Muddy Waters as Patsy Cline it came as no shock that covers of both Patsy and Hank Williams Sr. were played. These songs, however, had an edge that didn’t exist in the first recordings. Her capacity to sound at once “old” and “new” brought a freshness to these country standards, as well as her entire set. The music of the evening was saturated in American traditionalism, and Arum Rae certainly set the perfect tone for the remainder of the night.
I’ve always linked the power of the concert to the communal religious experience. The zeal that is felt in an audience is reminiscent of the frenzied excitement that can be seen in a congregation speaking in tongues or the solemn peace that can be felt walking into a room of meditative monks. While rare, when this collective experience of the concert culminates together it resonates throughout and can be felt by all. As I looked out onto the audience, I felt confident that most were experiencing nearly the exact same thing. The Civil Wars are a reminder to us of what makes music great, the ability to share something with nothing more than a couple of microphones and a guitar. It is in their simplicity and raw talent that causes them to succeed where so many fail. This was a show about music and nothing more.
By Erin Tuttle
Photos By Becca Armstrong