Live Review: The Civil Wars at Amoeba, Los Angeles, June 14, 2011

Peanut butter and jelly.  Forrest and Jenny.  Americans and debt.  Yes, some things were just meant to go together.  Add now to that list Joy Williams and John Paul White, aka the Nashville, TN-based The Civil Wars, who played a pair of shows at Largo last Monday and Tuesday with a stop at Amoeba Records in between.

Let's Du-et: The Civil Wars' Williams and White at Amoeba (photo by the author).

There are a lot of ways to describe the music of The Civil Wars, and certainly almost all fall short of success.  “Indie folk” might get you in the ballpark but that bland classification by default fails to identify what is the most singularly striking thing about the music Williams and White make, which would be to say it’s simply effortless.

Without a doubt, they are such organically cohesive performers that seeing them live feels more like sitting in on a conversation than it does watching an act.  So intertwined are they, weaving their vocals together or matching each other note for note, that it’s quite difficult to recall anything in recent music history that accomplishes the same thing.  Artists like She & Him, Jenny and Johnny, Angus and Julia Stone and others of that ilk fall desperately short in comparison – not that they should ever be compared.

Experiencing The Civil Wars live is what witnessing vaudeville in its heyday must have been like.  In addition to the Fulbright Scholarship level of performing, there’s plenty of humor and banter and general good-feelingness.  Mining Johnny Cash and June Carter, or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, or yes – even the golden-era Sonny and Cher are more likely to provide an accurate context for understanding what The Civil Wars live are all about.

Professing astonishment that more than 10 people were there to see them perform after taking the stage at Amoeba last Tuesday evening, The Civil Wars went ahead and did what they do best by taking a brief walk through their debut full-length studio album, Barton Hollow.

With her long dark hair, gentle swaying and beaming smile, Williams provided the emotional centerpiece of the show, anchored by White’s guitar prowess and less obvious but equally formidable vocal ability (not to mention his striking resemblance to Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond character from Almost Famous).  Add to it all a sort of nonchalant, sincere effusiveness, and it was becoming quite obvious why The Civil Wars have become a draw in the few short months since the release of their debut full-length studio album, Barton Hollow.

Even without wine, The Civil Wars make a fine pairing (photo by the author).

After culminating their tour of Barton Hollow with an indelible “I’ve Got This Friend,” The Civil Wars wound down with a pair of covers in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”  And though they quite literally were in a hurry to finish their set, do a quick album signing and get over to Largo for their actual show, when the Amoeba crowd demanded an encore, Williams and White delivered with a take on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.” 

Inasmuch as the trend of faux-ironic, twee, acoustic renditions of big pop hits has become an overdrawn well of inurement (Angus and Julia Stone’s “You Better Shape Up” comes immediately to mind), there was something about the way that The Civil Wars delivered “Billie Jean” and “Disarm” that made it impossible to weigh their efforts down with any such cynical cultural baggage.

And in the end, that’s the true beauty of The Civil Wars – two voices, a guitar and no cynicism.  After all, being cynical is easy.  Being the opposite, and to bring that to bloom in a package like the one Williams and White have concocted – now, that takes some doing.

In our hyper-digital age, where our TVs and computers have been pockmarked with images of battle and strife, and the phrase “no blood for oil” has been tattooed into our collective consciousness, here now are Wars we could do with more of.

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