We’re always excited when a You Oughta Know artist comes to our offices and performs an exclusive You Oughta Know Live set, but The Civil Wars particularly enthralled the room (even if the “room” was our lobby). Before they took the impromptu stage, the audience was more hesitant than usual, largely hanging by the elevators or against the back wall.
But the instant they launched their their four-song set with their single “Barton Hollow,” the band’s presence drew in the crowd; Joy Williams and John Paul White are almost instinctual performers. Williams in particular accentuated her vocals by gesturing and dancing, and when, on “Poison & Wine” (“the loud version,” as White called it), she was behind the keyboard, the two locked eyes, not only to “perform” the doomed love of the song but also as a substitute for any rhythmic accompaniment besides White’s strumming (which also allowed them to end on a rather long shared note). These two belong on a stage. No wonder they scored opening gigs for Adele next month.
Even their banter is professional-grade. After Williams explained the weather-related flight delays that brought her to the city at four in the morning, White deadpanned, “I got in at eight last night, had a glass of wine, watched a movie…I was really kind of bored.” And Williams talked through White’s guitar double-checking without missing a beat, even adding, “We tune because we care.”
That’s what’s striking about The Civil Wars—they’re observant. Everything they do would seem canny if it weren’t instantaneous, reactive to the particulars of the situation. (Williams could teach a class on how to judge and vary one’s distance from a microphone alone, if any of the thousands of vocalists who need to take it would bother to enroll.)
After they played “Birds of a Feather,” Williams told the short version of the band’s formation. As for the longer version? “Maybe Storytellers one of these days,” she joked. White gave her props for the promotional quip. But their stories probably wouldn’t have much to do with the songs: their doomed-lovers vibe is emotive but fictive (they are both happily married to other people). But that pesky fact doesn’t matter because as songwriters and performers, The Civil Wars know what doomed love sounds like, and they imbue not only their own songs but also others’ with those sonic elements. Their Record Store Day Exclusive 7″ featured radically reworked versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” and today they closed their set by turning the Smashing Pumpkins‘ “Disarm” into a tragic duet, with Williams transforming the narrator’s helplessness in lines like “What’s a boy supposed to do?” into the voice of his hurt subject’s struggle for understanding). We’ll let you know when the set goes live, because it’s a must-hear.
Setlist: “Barton Hollow”/”Poison & Wine”/”Birds of a Feather”/”Disarm” (Smashing Pumpkins cover)